Chipotle’s recent series of food safety outbreaks rattled its investors and enough of its customers to see visits decline, but the chain’s strong base of teens and young adult customers continued to support the fast casual chain, finds The NPD Group, a leading global information company. In the quarter ending December, during which several of the outbreaks occurred, total visits to Chipotle were down 5 percent compared to a 19 percent traffic gain the same quarter year ago. Teens and young adults, however, increased their visits to the Mexican fast casual chain by double-digits last year, according to NPD Group’s ongoing foodservice market research.
“Young adults represent the largest share of Chipotle’s overall traffic,” says Bonnie Riggs, NPD Group’s restaurant industry analyst. “Their willingness to overlook any food safety concerns to eat at Chipotle could be a result of unabashed loyalty or lack of awareness.”
NPD Group continually tracks U.S. consumers’ awareness and concern about food safety outbreaks and often sees heightened awareness and concern of an outbreak correspond with heavy news coverage of the incident. After the news cycle quiets down, awareness and concern of the outbreak declines. Based on this pattern, if consumers aren’t exposed to news about a food safety outbreak, they have little awareness or concern.
As for those not-so-loyal and former Chipotle customers, they appeared to have scattered to various other quick-service or fast-casual outlets for their fare, and no particular outlet or chain is the clear winner of the chain’s visit largesse, based on an analysis using NPD Group’s receipt harvesting service, Checkout TrackingSM. Chains with the most units like Burger King and McDonald’s had the opportunity to attract the most former Chipotle customers. Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s also won over former Chipotle customers.
“What our research tells us is that Chipotle has a strong loyal base from which to build its business back up relatively quickly,” Riggs says. “To win back the trust of their former customers, Chipotle will need to continually communicate all of the ways in which they are preventing any future outbreaks and prove to them that they able to deliver on their ‘food with integrity’ promise.”