Chipotle Blew It.

Chipotle blew it.

Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of Chipotle. I appreciate that their food (as fast food goes) is reasonably healthy and at least makes the effort to nod to organic and non-GMO ingredients. I also love the consistent quality of the food at Chipotle. A veggie fajita salad is exactly the same in New York as it is in London as it is in Toronto—and after spending more than a year in a veritable food dessert in Denmark, my first Chipotle salad in London was a true treat. Chipotle service, on the other hand, varies. Workers in the UK are pleasant and in Canada too, workers in New York are pretty consistently brusque and miserable, and in Southern California Chipotle workers are much more generous with their servings of guacamole than anywhere else.

Until about a month ago, I ate at Chipotle about once a week, on average. I have the “burrito button” on my Apple Watch, and the Chipotle app on my iPhone. I am definitely a fan. Which is exactly why I am so very disappointed by watching a company that I truly admire slowly crash and burn.

For those of you who may not be up to speed, Chipotle closed 43 restaurants in the Pacific Northwest this past October over concerns about E.Coli. First off, let me be clear: E.Coli. happens… too frequently. This might be because the U.S. has flimsy oversight of food security, but that’s a whole other article. But here’s where the problem started for Chipotle. To their credit, they closed the restaurants, and I am sure that some executive or internal PR person thought it wise to demonstrate (through the media) that “out of an abundance of caution” Chipotle was being proactive by responsibly overreacting to what, at the time, seemed to be a small issue. Most restaurants wouldn’t dare close a single outlet for fear of tarnishing their reputation. I mean, seriously, does anyone think that any other chain—Red Lobster, Olive Garden, TGIFriday’s—has never had this problem?

Unfortunately, by being responsible, Chipotle was also wrong.

The Narrative Problem
By trying to use the news as a PR vehicle, Chipotle almost immediately lost control of the narrative. Now, rather than controlling the story, the story began—almost instantly—to control Chipotle. The message came across loud and clear: 43 restaurants closed. BOOM. That’s it. In the mind of the consumer, the only question is: Why… why did those restaurants close? The answer was too convenient: E.Coli. BOOM AGAIN! Chipotle made the grievous error of linking their brand to E.Coli. That is, in the minds of most busy consumers, they don’t care much about the whole story, all they need to know is that there is a problem with Chipotle and E.Coli, and… well, that’s all they really want to know. So the message is clear: Stay away from Chipotle until we know why or what the problem is.

Again, this isn’t a problem unique to Chipotle, but most companies have crisis response teams in place. Chipotle may have a crisis response team, but that team was either completely out of their league, asleep at the switch, or on vacation. As the inverted PR machine began to work against Chipotle, the damage began to spread. And then, even worse, as cases of other E.Coli. and norovirus contaminated Chipotle meals began to spread to other states, the crisis management team seemed to truly out to lunch (or maybe sickened by E.Coli. themselves?)

The “Update on Food Safety” page on the Chipotle website was (and continues to be) consistently lagging in its updates and clarity. It is also too verbose and shrouded in mystery, which only perpetuates fear and uncertainty. Even for Chipotle fanboys like me, I wouldn’t set foot into a Chipotle, because as Judge Judy says, “if something doesn’t make sense, it’s because it’s a lie.” And someone is either lying or incredibly stupid at Chipotle. The Update on Food Safety on the Chipotle site stokes this concern and notes that with regard to the E.Coli scare in the states other than Oregon and Washington: “Despite these reports being later than the original, these are not believed to be a separate incident as all cases, including the originals in the Pacific Northwest, occurred between October 13 and November 10.”  So now, in the mind of the consumer who is already thinking Chipotle = E.Coli., they are now left to wonder: if it’s not an isolated incident, and there were several cases in the Pacific Northwest and a few in the East… what exactly is causing this?

The Chicken Solution
Chipotle has yet to fess up and say exactly what has caused the E.Coli. outbreak, and if they don’t do it fast, they might as well figure out a way to shutter up their business and close down. The fact of the matter that despite a feeble effort to keep the public informed, that Chipotle is no longer in control of the narrative of this story. A letter from the Chipotle founder, Steve Ells, posted nearly two months after the start of this debacle, doesn’t cut it either. In order to regain public trust and resuscitate their brand equity (and owner’s equity), what Chipotle needs to do is simple: pin it on a single ingredient or process. Saying something as simple as “it was the chicken” (or whatever ingredient.) Would clearly outline one thing in the minds of consumers: Chipotle = E.Coli. = Chicken. DONE. The solution for most consumers would be to avoid chicken at Chipotle, and slowly, Chipotle would begin to bounce back—or at least, have some hope of bouncing back from this episode.

Unfortunately, Chipotle leadership has failed to do this, instead opting to talk in abstract terms about food safety and central processing. I don’t know how to put this any more directly, but THAT’S NOT HELPING! Again, in the consumer’s mind, the only thing these discussions yield is more fear and raise more questions.

I can’t help but wonder, does the fact that Chipotle is engaging in a major food handling overhaul mean that, maybe, the restaurants weren’t clean to begin with? Are all the ingredients tainted? Maybe food wasn’t being handled well for years? After reading Chipotle propaganda about food safety, my brain doesn’t go anywhere good, and I am still left wondering: what the hell caused all this? With the bigger and more important question looming: what do “they” know and aren’t telling me? Because clearly, if they are spending millions to reset their entire operation, they must have discovered something wrong along the way.

I know you are thinking: yeah, but wouldn’t blaming it on the Chicken, eviscerate sales for Chipotle? The answer to that is no: Chipotle has had a very public shortage of pork (carnitas) for over a year, because the supplier was not up to Chipotle standard. Customers weathered this, and Chipotle turned a potentially negative sales killer into a positive PR move. The pork shortage didn’t hurt sales and didn’t hurt customer confidence. In fact, it helped to bolster customer confidence… until now. Now, every ingredient is suspect because Chipotle has given their clients no other option but to believe it is the processes and procedures that caused these outbreaks of E.Coli. and norovirus, and not any one ingredient.

The Bounceback
Chipotle, I truly (and sadly) believe, is finished, unless they can bounce back from this episode, and given their current strategy (or lack of strategy), I don’t believe that they on the proper trajectory to do so. Meanwhile, their stock is hemorrhaging value and corporate equity is evaporating at a rate nearly as fast as their brand equity. Stockholders aren’t going to sit by idly and watch their investment in this once-darling company, evaporate. The crisis solution for Chipotle is threefold:

  1. Get control of the narrative. Overhaul the Chipotle website and update it hourly for the foreseeable future with the latest and clearest information possible. Since this outbreak, not a single television commercial has aired for Chipotle. There should be an immediate advertising campaign to address the issue and regain the public trust. Silence in this case is deadly.
  2. Be clear about which ingredients or exactly which procedures caused this outbreak. Until this is clarified and addressed, Chipotle is playing with fire.
  3. Pay it forward. Open the doors and give it away. Regain the public trust by giving away a free lunch to anyone willing to take it. That will remind loyal customers about how tasty Chipotle food is, and will give Chipotle management a metric to measure the estimated duration of the potential rebound.

What are your thoughts about Chipotle and their recent struggles?

Outstanding: Vegan Gluten Free Black Bean Brownies, Courtesy of Minimalist Baker

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I am seamlessly re-posting this outstanding recipe from the Minimalist Baker, to whom I give credit with not only developing an outstanding recipe, but also with changing my nutritional life!

I know, it sounds gross… but they are really outstanding and packed full of all sorts of good things. Give it a try, you won’t be sorry.

It seems ludicrous to make your favorite recipes just once, but when you’re a food blogger sometimes you don’t have time for repeats! But, after making a similar version of these black bean brownies a couple years ago I couldn’t help but try them again. They’re fudgy, sweet, and still one of the best brownies I’ve …

Source: Vegan Gluten Free Black Bean Brownies – Minimalist Baker

Quinoa.

Wow. Folks really struggle with the name of this food. Quinoa. It’s pronounced [key-n-wah]. Some folks pronounce it as [quin-O-a]. That’s OK too, the name is just as versatile as the food.

I get so—so—many questions about quinoa. I eat it regularly and every time someone sees me eating it at lunch, I get questions: Do I like it? (Yes, obviously, because I’m eating it.) What does it taste like? (Neutral, like rice.) Is it difficult to make? (No.) and so on.

Uncooked quinoa.

The fact of the matter is that I like carbohydrates but carbohydrates don’t love me… or maybe they love me so much that they never want to leave me, they just turn into fat and stay around forever. So, I need to be reasonably careful which carbs and how many carbs I eat. Quinoa couldn’t be better, it is a carbohydrate that is PACKED with nutritionally-dense protein instead of being packed with nutritionally-void starches.

The folks at Bob’s Red Mill explain more about quinoa:

Quinoa was a staple food for the South American Indians living in the high altitudes of the Andes Mountains. It was immensely popular because it was one of few crops that could survive in such high altitudes (10,000 – 20,000 feet above sea level). It could withstand frost, intense sun and the often dry conditions that characterized the Andean climate. It was also recognized for its superior nutritional qualities. For these reasons, it was dubbed “mother of all grains” by the Incas, so much so that it came to have spiritual significance for them. Many traditions and ceremonies surrounded the cultivation, harvest and consumption of quinoa.

Quinoa is a “pseudo-grain”—actually a gluten-free seed, but used in cooking like a whole grain. This nutrient-rich grain is a wonderful source of complete protein, providing all of the essential amino acids. It is also a good source of dietary fiber. Naturally gluten free, this powerful little grain is a great addition to any diet, but is an ideal solution for those following a gluten free, vegan or vegetarian diet that are looking to increase their protein and fiber.

Quinoa is a beautiful plant too!

Quinoa is easy to prepare (I make it using my homemade vegetable broth) in a rice cooker set to brown rice. Despite recipe guidance I have found online, I find a 40/60 water/quinoa ratio to work very well in my rice cooker. Once it’s cooked, you’ll see little spirals appear (that’s how you know it’s done.) From there, the sky is the limit. Use it with a spicy tomato sauce like pasta (just go ahead and mix the sauce right in), or with a zesty basil pesto sauce, or in place of rice in a stir fry, or just “plain” with some sautéed vegetables. Quinoa can be eaten hot or cold and reheats perfectly. It also stands up to the freezer really well, and makes a great addition to soups and chili, giving body and texture wherever it goes.

Cooked quinoa (see the little spirals?)

Quinoa is one of my go-to pantry staple items. It keep a Mason jar of it in my Airstream all the time!

Bento. 

I ran across this great blog a while back about a woman who lost 30lbs by eating a bento lunch each day. Now, I should say that the food service on my campus is unparalleled and the quality and variety of what is served is consistently outstanding. Which, for me posed a problem. In my first year, I gained about 30lbs because I just couldn’t pass up a plate of fries and the outstanding soft serve chocolate ice cream.

Until I started my bento box lunch.

First, the bento is really satisfying, and very healthy. As I learned from the JustBento.com site, there’s a method to filling the bento, and it’s centered around not only nutrition but also aesthetics.

I like that the form factor of my bento box is similar to the form factor of my Airstream, and that it keeps my lunch separate, organized, and portable until it’s time to eat it.

Bentgo bento box

I am using the Bentgo grey, which I picked up (of course) at Marshalls for $7.99. I like the Bentgo brand because they are BPA-free made from EU food-safety authority approved all food grade materials. The top container nests inside the bottom one for compact & easy storage, and includes built-in plastic silverware (fork, knife and spoon) with room for a packet of gluten free soy sauce and travel chop sticks.

One Pot Simple

White Bean Soup.
Delicious white bean soup, with kale garnish.

I’m always on the lookout for simple, one-pot, rice cooker and crockpot meals. I truly enjoy cooking, but sometimes, after a long day, it’s nice to come home, throw a bunch of ingredients into a pot and have a delicious dinner 15 minutes later.

Over the past two months, Dan and I have been trying to eat better (he’s lost about 10lbs, and I’ve lost about 20lbs.) So, we’ve been on the prowl for easy-to-make things (so we don’t slip into our old eating habits when we’re short on time or feeling lazy.)

We’re learned a bunch of great—vegetarian and healthy—recipes that use off-the-shelf ingredients from any store. No strange or difficult-to-find items necessary.

Our favorite is White Bean Stew that takes—seriously—about 5 minutes to make from start to finish. I don’t know why anyone would eat Campbell’s soup, because this is seriously easier.

The base of the stew is a mirepoix—a cubic concoction of roughly equal parts onions, celery, and carrot. Just chop it up, throw it in a pan with some oil and sauteé with salt and pepper. Then add a can of white beans, slightly rinsed. Add a touch of water (as much as you’d like, actually less=stew, more=soup.)

That’s it.

Bring it to a boil and serve. It’s delicious, simple, and healthy… and best of all, there’s only one pot to clean up!

Rice Cooker Omelette

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I love cooking in my Airstream, but one thing I don’t love: frying. Though the kitchen is very well designed and accommodates cooking a full meal, the very nature of frying makes your entire house—big or small—smell like whatever you’ve got in the pan. Because of that, I tend to rely on heat-and-eat type stuff in the Airstream.

For some reason, I stumbled across a recipe for rice cooker omelettes some time ago, and I have been meaning to try it. (I bought the rice cooker for the Airstream specifically, and it works much better than a crock pot would in such small quarters. I have made many successful dinners in it, and the rice cooker contains the mess and any food odors.)

Admittedly, being squeamish about eggs (I didn’t eat them for more than 30 years), I had visions of a rice cooker omelette being an abject disaster: messy, smelly, explosion-y.

Boy, was I wrong!

I attempted this recipe, and the outcome could not have been better.

The recipe is easy—even easier than making an omelette on a stovetop—and it actually stayed together! (I still haven’t mastered the art of making an omelette in a frying pan. I still always wind up with some variation of scrambled eggs.) I was shocked to open the rice cooker when it beeped to find a GIANT soufflé-like mass that immediately deflated the moment I opened the lid. I sprinkled on some cheese and portobello mushrooms, and let it “steam” for a few more minutes.

Then, was the real test: getting it out. Stunningly, I folded the omelette in half, and it popped right out! The meal took about 5 minutes start-to-finish (including eating it), and couldn’t have been more tasty!

The recipe has the ominous note: “The omelet should not be fully cooked when removed from the pan because it continues to cook on its own after removed from heat.” This (for some reason) was one of the reasons why it took me so long to actually try this recipe. It seemed to fly in the face of every rule I knew about cooking eggs: don’t eat them raw or undercooked. However, I’m not sure why this note is even included in the recipe. My omelette was perfectly cooked and there wasn’t a stitch of raw eggs in sight!

I can’t recommend this method enough… especially for my friends in tight quarters!

Kitchen

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When folks ask me about the airstream, they are always interested in two things: the bathroom and the kitchen. (For the record, it has both.) The kitchen is fully-functioning, and surprisingly functional. The kitchen has a sink (with instant hot water), a refrigerator with a freezer (that runs on both electricity AND propane), and a propane gas stove top with two burners. I added a microwave and a rice cooker, as well as a full compliment of spices and kitchenware (including my great, great grandmother’s cast iron skillet). The kitchen has ample storage space above and below, and I find that though compact, I can actually do a fair amount of cooking in it. The high-end faucet has a spray handle on it, so it makes washing dishes a snap.

I enjoy cooking and I thought I would be limited in my ability to cook a “real” meal. That hasn’t been a struggle at all. The range hood (with light and fan) are perfect, and keep odors and grease out of the living space (which is, after all, only inches away!)