The Little Restaurant That Could: How Chipotle Won Back Clients with Free Food

On any given day, the line that wraps around Chipotle on Green Street is inevitable. However, on February 8, there was silence.  

The company closed all locations that morning for a staff food safety training following the recent outbreak of E. Coli that had resulted in closed stores in Oregon and Washington with a federal investigation from the FDA.  

Any food-borne illness, big or small, can easily damage a client base in a matter of weeks.  Chipotle saw a loss of trust in their revenue as they reported a fourth quarter net income of $67.9 million, a decrease of 44%.  Their consumers had no reason to return anytime soon after this outbreak.

Well, almost all customers.  

Here on the UIUC campus, Chipotle reigns king during mealtime. Students flock to the adorned burrito spot.  Even during the E. Coli outbreak, a majority of their client base remained loyal and risked their health, just to eat that delicious steak burrito bowl.

Nick Patterson, a junior in molecular and cellular biology, said during the week the news of the outbreak came out, he ate at Chipotle three times.  He said he that he “loved Chipotle too much to care about feeling sick for a couple of days.”

Fast forward to Feb. 8, when disappointed students — myself included — arrived to find Chipotle’s doors closed. However there was a saving grace – the reminder to text “Raincheck” to 888222.  After giving some simple demographic information, customers were rewarded with a coupon for a free burrito, or any meal item, as long as it was purchased in-store.

Suddenly everyone became a fan of Chipotle, even students who weren’t loyal in the first place.

As any eyewitness can attest, the line at Green Street location was even more monstrous than before, and it was filled almost entirely with students who had their free coupon to use.  The restaurant was especially booming and boisterous on the following Saturday, as those coming from Block were eagerly awaiting their free food.  Some patrons even started arguing with those who had left the line to use the bathroom and returned to their original spot in line.

Chipotle reached their previously untapped potential by taking a page out of the RSO book: if you have free food, they will come.  By bringing their original client base back to the restaurant and giving them a taste of what they’ve come to love, Chipotle did exactly what they needed to win back their target market here in Champaign.

AAF Illinois