If you love…or used to love…eating at Chipotle, you’re not alone. In recent years, Chipotle has emerged as one of America’s most popular fast food chains. Part of its success has been rooted in its apparent commitment to using fresh and “natural” ingredients. Indeed, despite the fact that McDonald’s was an original investor, Chipotle has gained major points with both the fast food and fresh food crowds. But don’t be fooled. As reported in a recent Mother Jones Magazine report, Chipotle’s ingredients carry their share of GMOs, their beef is not 100% grass fed, and an estimated 20% of the company’s beef does contain antibiotics. Chipotle’s real problems at the moment, however, have less to do with the veracity of its health claims and more to do with its most recent E. coli outbreak—the second major contamination in recent months. Is lax service industry training to blame for the food chain’s problems? Also, how might mLearning help this food chain dig out of its current troubles and help other food chains avoid making Chipotle’s errors?
The Cause of Chipotle’s Problems
While investigators don’t know for certain what caused Chipotle’s problems, cross contamination is highly suspected to be the source of the recent E. coli outbreak. Cross contamination occurs in restaurants and other food preparation areas when juices from raw meats or germs on objects touch cooked or ready-to-eat foods. In a fast food outlet, like Chipotle, where the mix of ingredients is a key component of the product, opportunities for cross contamination are ripe. The restaurant now does all its meat marinating at night to lower the risk of cross contamination with fresh vegetables. They also now submerge all lemons, limes, jalapenos, onions and avocados in boiling water to lower the level of contaminants on the skins of these products. However, there are other potential reasons for the outbreak too.
Most notably, there is the question of hand washing. For example, if an employee touches their hair or face and then touches food, they are not in compliance with hand washing regulations. If they are wearing gloves and preparing a burrito but then pick up a container—for example, a refill of sauce from the kitchen—and fail to change their gloves, they are also no longer in compliance with hand washing regulations. Of course, keeping track of hand-washing practices in a fast-paced food service outlet with multi employees can be a challenge, even for an experienced manager.
The Response to the Crisis
To be fair, the restaurant chain has done their best to respond to their recent crises. They informed the public, apologized, shut down locations to properly deal with the problem, and changed practices that were considered high risk (e.g., preparing meat during busy operating hours). They have also started to prepare most of their vegetables off site; from now on, even avocados will not be cut on site, but rather blanched and packaged in a central facility and sent out to restaurants. Critics suggest, however, that the company did not move quickly enough after their first crisis and made critical errors on the communication front. In a press release apologizing to the public they maintained that they will become the “safest” restaurant. This was considered a major misstep by some onlookers, since it’s a promise that the company can likely not keep nor ever prove they are keeping. Saying “We’re going to be the safest place to eat,” may sound soothing to worried Chipotle customers, but in fact, since the statement cannot be effectively measured, it is also an empty statement. So where does Chipotle stand? The verdict is still out on whether or not the restaurant chain can in fact recover from its recent outbreak of E. coli and earlier food safety errors.
The Challenge of Providing High Quality Training for Service Sector Employees
There is no question that providing high-quality training in the service sector is a challenge. First, the service sector has a high percentage of young workers—people who are just entering the workforce for the first time. Their skill level, as a result, is often very low, and training is especially critical. Second, the service sector has the highest turnover rate of any sector. This means that training must happen on an ongoing basis. Third, with the low compensation rates that are typical across the sector (particularly in fast food outlets), workers often take their jobs less seriously and as a result, care less about compliance issues. After all, if you’re only risking the loss of an $8/hour job and not a salaried position with future opportunities, the motivation to comply is simply not as strong. Finally, even at the managerial level, the service sector often suffers from high turnover rates, which means that the people delivering training and carrying out performance reviews are often also inexperienced. In short, everything about the service industry makes efforts to provide quality training an uphill battle.
Using mLearning to Address the Service Sector Training Gap
As discussed in several recent eLeap posts, the service sector is especially well positioned to leverage the benefits of mLearning.
- With most working-age people now possessing a smart phone, delivering training via mobile devices is feasible and even preferable. Since many service workers are young and especially apt to prefer accessing information on their phone, mLearning is also a particularly good choice for the service industry context.
- mLearning also works with the temporality of the service industry. By necessity, mLearning is modular—things are broken down into short units that take only 5 to 10 minutes to complete. As such, rolling out a training program via a mobile device permits workers to complete units on a break at work, while riding the bus, or even between customers on a particular slow day.
- mLearning also enables employers to quickly update training modules (e.g., it can respond to problems as they arise).
- With mLearning, employers can easily track who has and has not successfully completed required training modules.
To appreciate how mLearning may be used in a restaurant, consider the following scenario. A routine internal review reveals that hand washing practices are slipping. Before a crisis occurs (e.g., a cross contamination problem), all employees—even those in compliance—are asked to complete a refresher module on hand washing. The notification of the refresher course appears on their cell phone, and all employees are given a week to complete the refresher course. The employer has statistics on who has/has not completed the module and can easily follow up (with automatic notifications or in person) with anyone who fails to complete the training in a timely manner. Without a mLearning, rolling out a refresher course on hand washing for hundreds or thousands of employees across locations and ensuring everyone has completed the course in seven days would be extremely challenging and likely take weeks rather than days. With mLearning, this task can be rolled out quickly. Most importantly, it is likely to achieve a much higher completion rate.
For more on food safety training, compliance and mLearning, also see the following recent eLeaP posts and resources:
- Food Safety Training Part One: The Chilpotle Crisis and the CDC’s Findings
- Stadium Food and Beverage Case Study
- Food Safety Training Part Two: Training Restaurant Employees for Food Safety
- Making the Grade: Food Compliance and Training