One restaurant chain’s woes may be another’s gain.
On Monday, all Chipotle restaurants are closing until midafternoon, missing the lunchtime rush, for employees to receive health and food safety training after customers in Minnesota and elsewhere came down with food-related illnesses.
On the same day, another casual restaurant chain, Freshii, is discounting all of its Mexican-inspired entrees by 50 percent in a promotion called “Celebrate ChipotFrii.”
“Freshii invites Chipotle regulars — and customers of all other restaurant chains — to discover Freshii’s nutritious, chef-designed approach to Mexican food on Feb. 8,” the company said in its announcement of the deal.
It added a statement from Freshii founder and CEO Matthew Corrin that said, “Like millions of other people, we at Freshii are big fans of Chipotle. We figured the least we would do was look after their customers while Chipotle pauses to recalibrate.”
Shelby Molina of Wayzata, who ate lunch at Freshii in downtown Minneapolis on Friday, had mixed feelings about the promotion.
“My family and I are huge fans of Chipotle, and we’re going through withdrawal while they sort things out,” she said. “But I see Freshii’s offer as kind of a dig. I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with that.”
It’s rare for a restaurant or retailer to directly call out a competitor, said restaurant analyst Dennis Lombardi of Insight Dynamics of Columbus, Ohio. “Why create awareness for them?” he said. He thinks some people will see Freshii’s offer as a low blow, “but others will see it as a good short-term offer and a way to sample the brand.”
He doesn’t think the offer will make anyone switch, but rather a marketing opportunity for both sides. “It lets people know that Chipotle is closed for massive retraining, which can be a good thing for them,” Lombardi said.
Scott McPhee, who owns Freshii franchises in Mall of America and downtown Minneapolis, expects good traffic from the promotion. “I think it will be huge at the mall,” he said. “We’ve posted it digitally and will have boards out front.”
Chipotle believes once its customers are aware that its food safety issues have been resolved, many will return.
“Beginning next week, we are launching a variety of marketing programs designed to invite our customers back into our restaurants,” Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle’s chief creative and development officer, told analysts this week.
Chipotle’s woes began in Minnesota last summer when more than 60 customers became ill from eating tomatoes tainted with salmonella. Since then, more than 500 people across the country have been affected, mostly from a norovirus after eating in Simi Valley, Calif., and Boston restaurants.
Since the outbreaks, sales plunged 14.6 percent in the quarter ending Dec. 31, the first quarterly decline in revenue since Chipotle went public in 2006.
Freshii, which serves soups, salads, wraps, burritos, and smoothies, has more than 200 restaurants globally, including Mall of America, Gaviidae Common in downtown Minneapolis, Target in northeast Minneapolis, and on the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus.