NEW YORK (AP) — Chipotle repeatedly told employees they need to stay home if they feel sick and the restaurant chain kept all its U.S. locations shuttered early Monday as executives went over new food safety procedures.
The presentation for workers, which comes after Chipotle has been slammed by a series of food scares, was broadcast live at hundreds of theaters and hotel conference rooms around the country.
Co-CEO Monty Moran noted two of the four incidents were the result of norovirus, which is typically caused by sick workers.
"If you're feeling sick, especially if you've vomited, whether at work or at home, you need to let your manager or your field leader know right away," Moran said from a restaurant in Denver.
With about 50,000 employees expected in attendance for the presentation, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. postponed opening its restaurants for four hours to 3 p.m. local time Monday.
As a peace offering to inconvenienced customers, Chipotle said it would give free burritos to people who text in a code to the company. Moran urged employees to be "incredibly hospitable" as the company fights to win back customers.
"We need you to be your very best," he said.
Chipotle is trying to bounce back from plunging sales since an E. coli outbreak came to light in late October. Executives say they may never know what caused the illnesses, but that it was likely the result of cross contamination in restaurants. In December, the company was also hit by a norovirus incident in Boston.
Those cases brought more attention to a norovirus case in California and a salmonella case in Minnesota earlier in the year.
In January, sales were down 36 percent at restaurants open at least 13 months from the year-ago period. To work through the crisis, Chipotle hired Rubenstein Associates to help with its public relations.
The Denver company said employees watched the presentation Monday at more than 400 locations around the country.
In New York City, workers filed into two theaters inside Regal Cinemas in Union Square. Many had orange pieces of paper on which they had been told to take notes, though that proved difficult in rooms darkened during the presentation. Employees, who were paid for attending, said they were told to come wearing their uniforms.
In a video, employees were told to watch for symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, explosive diarrhea, yellowing of the skin and eyes and dark urine.
"When anyone vomits in the back of the house or the front line, this is a red event, which means we close the restaurant immediately," said Gretchen Selfridge, a Chipotle restaurant support officer.
Chipotle noted that it offers three paid sick days a year. Situations where employees are told to go home and not work for five days after showing symptoms as part of company procedure are exceptions, Selfridge said. Employees are still paid in those cases.
Executives also covered procedural changes that ranged from handwashing rules and the marinating of meat, to the chopping of tomatoes and lettuce at centralized locations. During a question-and-answer period in which Chipotle selected screened questions, one employee asked whether the company planned to start chopping vegetables in restaurants again.
When the question appeared onscreen, employees in New York City groaned. One said upon leaving that cutting vegetables in stores is hard work.
How long it takes Chipotle to bounce back remains to be seen.
Other companies hit by food scares have taken about a year or more to recover, Chipotle executives note. But they say their situation may differ because it involves more than one incident, and they received intense exposure in social and mass media.
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(This story has been corrected to show that the name of the public relations firm is Rubenstein Associates, not Rubenstein Public Relations.)