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Chipotle enforces sick policy, reports no food safety issues since 2017

Dive Brief:
• Over the last two years, Chipotle has adopted a new food safety culture that includes wellness checks of staff. Employees can't enter the back of the restaurant without passing a wellness check, Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol said during Barclay's Eat, Sleep, Play — It's Not All Discretionary conference on Wednesday. Chipotle did not comment on the parameters of this wellness check before press time.
• "Chipotle ensures that all employees are healthy so that they can prepare real food and serve it to our customers," Kerry Bridges, Chipotle's VP of food safety, told Restaurant Dive in an emailed statement. "When an employee reports certain symptoms to their manager, the clinical nurse team at Zero Hour Health will follow up with those employees to understand their illness. Not all ill employees talk to a nurse, but all Chipotle employees receive paid sick leave from their first day of employment to use when they are not feeling well."
• The chain also uses cleaners that can kill norovirus on dining tables and has more aggressive safety standards when sanitizing its dining rooms, he said.

Dive Insight:
Following a norovirus outbreak in 2017 that sickened several customers in Virginia, the company began enforcing its sick policy, according to CNBC — and for good reason.

During the norovirus incident, Chipotle's stock plunged about 12% and brought up discussions over the chain's previous food safety incidents. Prior to enforcement, employees reported being forced to go to work while sick, and one even said a manager wouldn’t let that staff member blow their nose during a peak period, according to CNBC.

But under CEO Brian Niccol, who joined the company shortly after the norovirus incident, the restaurant's food safety culture is much different. Every quarter it holds training over its food safety guidelines for general managers and field leaders. These guidelines are also reviewed each during store morning meetings, Niccol said.

Overall, restaurants are cleaner and the company culture is much more centered on food safety, he said.

"We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard to make sure the dining room gets sanitized in a way that it hasn’t been in the past," Niccol said.

Chipotle also now has a food safety council with thought leaders in the space and is much more open to feedback on how the company can get better, he said.

The company's attitude has also changed and instead of pointing out what competitors are doing wrong in the space, it focuses more on what Chipotle is doing well, Niccol said. Customer trust scores have gone up within the last 24 months and there have been no food safety incidents, Niccol said.

Chipotle also boosted employee benefits in the last few quarters, adding mental health and financial wellness benefits, which include access to in-person, phone or virtual visits to licensed counselors to help with personal, professional, mental, financial and/or legal concerns. It also started offering quarterly bonuses to teams that beat previously specified goals, such as sales, cash flow and throughput, which has helped boost employee retention.

As long as the company continues to hold its managers accountable, it will also continue to do well with its bottom line. It has experienced seven consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth, often beating investor estimates, and stocks are at an all-time high