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Did Chipotle get its act together enough to win back millennials?

The chain's crisis management attempts may be working.
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Early last week, Chipotle was well-positioned for a rebound—at least amongst millennials. While sales clearly have been suffering as a result of the many disease outbreaks across the country linked to the Mexican fast casual, its upfront discounting and giveaways through couponing seemed to excite the millennial crowd enough to make them look past the illnesses. At least, that’s the case for the millennials in the Restaurant Business office, who came in waving the free burrito coupons they received via snail mail this week, suggesting we all head there for lunch.

And then norovirus struck again…kind of. On March 8, a Chipotle unit in Billerica, Mass., voluntarily closed after an employee (and possibly two other co-workers) came down with the illness. While, unlike the other outbreaks, no guests have come down with the disease, any food that could harbor the germ was trashed as a precaution.

Combine that assurance with the chance to get free food—free Chipotle food!—and you have irresistible reasons for millennials to give their sweetheart brand another chance.

From this, it looks like Chipotle is starting to figure out how to get its act together in a crisis—both an immediate crisis and the long-term fallout. I’m sure the chain’s execs shake in their boots every time they hear the word “norovirus,” but its quick action of closing and dumping the food before guests were afflicted was a big—and pricey—step, especially given that under-the-weather employees still will be paid for the time they are out.

While it’s too soon to tell if these safety measures put in place during the chainwide meeting will put all consumers at ease, it seems (by the number of the Chipotle bags I spotted in the lunchroom over the last few days) that many of my millennial cohorts are appeased. Especially since the precautions are combined with free stuff—free burritos, free chips and salsa, etc. That’s where the long-term crisis management is coming into play.

The chain has admitted that this will be its reset year. Sales will be down and it’s focusing on getting its customers back in the door. So giving away a lot of free food is part of that sales hit it’s willing to take to try and regain its guests. And while there’s a lot of anti-couponing talk in the fast-casual realm—often pegged to a fear of devaluing the quality of the food—giveaways do get butts in seats. Especially young butts, who are all about finding value.

And hey, if my free Chipotle doesn’t make me sick, chances are pretty good that I’ll start going back again on a semi-regular basis. And I’m guessing I’m not the only millennial in that camp. 

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