The straight POOP on what happened to Chipotle

I originally intended this blog to be a potent reminder of how little we know about foodborne illnesses and how much you are at risk for it in your restaurant. While certainly a worthy discussion, I had to be honest and acknowledge, it’s also boring. As I read further into the Chipotle situation, however, one awful truth kept rearing its ugly mug — it starts and ends with POOP

As restaurant operators, we are surrounded by literal and figurative buckets of poop. For some of us, our best stories (and usually most disgusting) are often poop related. Whether you work at a McDonald’s that has a Playland or in restaurant fine dining establishment, you are managing other people’s poop. 

The question is how much grace you can muster, and how well you can tell the story later!

Let’s start with the most obvious birthplace for poop, your bathrooms. Anyone that has cleaned a restaurant toilet knows, to their much dismay, what other people’s poop looks and smells like.

We certainly know that poop jokes can be funny. The ancient Greeks & Romans peppered their literature and theatre with them. However, any of us that have had a grease trap gurgle up on a busy Saturday night might fail to see the humor in it. I once took over a restaurant that hadn’t addressed its grease trap in five years. Every time I enter a crowded elevator I still worry that I’m still emitting some faint scent from that exposure. 

If it happened to Chipotle, it can happen to you

I want to assert that I would happily eat at a Chipotle. Their concept is solid, their food well-presented and their operational standards are top quality. The truth is this could easily have happened to you. 

For Chipotle, their poop story begins anywhere but in their restaurants. The three major disasters they experienced were caused by E. coli and norovirus outbreaks from their locations. Both of these horrible illnesses are caused by… wait for it… POOP. 

What’s worse is that it’s people poop that’s causing these outbreaks. 

E. coli is worse for a couple of reasons:

  1. It can appear in meats or vegetables
  2. Most of the time the human poop comes from rodents that feed on it and track into to fields where your food is grown. 

Gross, right? 

The norovirus is also transmitted by human feces, but it’s more complicated and less dangerous. Lots of hand washing will help avoid this generally, but also letting your sick employees stay home and not spread their germs is another good way to go. I know this is easier said than done, but you have to manage the problem one way or another.

You may want to revisit your cleanliness, sanitation and personal time off policies. No one wants to experience the horror of making a guest sick. It’s just as much the cost to your business as it is the moral issue of caring for your patrons. 

Restaurant employee washing hands

Steps to avoid being the next Chipotle

Chipotle has taken some intense steps to correct their failures and will likely bounce back from this incident quickly. The problem is that most of their steps are institutional fixes that include things like a central kitchen, food safety testing, tracking produce provenance, etc. For small chain and independents, the steps are fairly clear but mostly procedurally. Since you can’t really manage where your produce and meats come from try the following steps:

  1. Have clear policies. Whether it’s hand washing, glove use, utensil/equipment sanitization or sick time for staff, it must be a published and supported policy. No shortcuts, no ignoring it when it’s inconvenient. No guest will ever be angry because you ran out of a product that you didn’t deem safe to consume. So, do temperature checks regularly, force glove changes (or hand sanitizing) at specific intervals. Stick with it and impress upon your staff why you value the behavior. They will come along and quickly support you. As long as you believe in it, they will too.
  2. Institute systems that insure success. Here’s a great example that Chipotle implemented that will also work for your kitchen. Set a specific time and condition of your kitchen to manage meat and produce. For example, only do produce prep as a morning activity. Once the prep area is completely cleaned then you can do sauce prep after lunch and finish the day with meat prep. This way meat, veggies and sauce are never in your prep area at the same time. There's no chance of cross contamination if they don’t occupy the same kitchen space at the same time.
  3. Manage employee health. There is nothing more frustrating that getting that call just before a shift starts from a “sick” employee. While I have no intention of starting the Paid Time Off debate here, there is a simple truth: If they are sick they can make your guests sick. Remember, they are employees at will. If they take advantage of a policy you set to protect guests, they were likely already a problem employee and they won’t be there long.
  4. Educate your staff. There are amazing resources that can help you make the inherent dangers clear to your team. One great example is the Serve Safe Food sanitation module from the National Restaurant Association (it’s $15/employee). The more of your team that has completed this program, the more you can rely on them to be accountable and participate in protecting your guests from foodborne illnesses. It will make your employees better and improve their overall performance.

In the end, you have to focus on a million issues as a restaurant operator. However, that doesn’t mean you have to be exposed. Just be prepared and let Chipotle be a cautionary tale whose allegory reminds us that if you are in the restaurant business -- and you don’t have a paddle -- you are probably up shit’s creek.

Chipotle storefront image by Josh Hallett.

Washing hands image by Victoria Earl.