The norovirus outbreak at Chipotle, a Mexican grill, has led the company to search for possible solutions. Seton Hall students in the Stillman School of Business did research separately and created studies to propose to the fast food chain with hopes of presenting their findings to Chipotle management at a conference this month.
The most recent Chipotle norovirus case sickened 143 people in Boston, Mass., in December 2015. The outbreak was “likely caused by a Chipotle employee who worked while sick,” according to Chipotle’s website. This led the restaurant to close down on February 8 for new food safety procedure training.
Amar Dev Amar, a Stillman management professor, saw the opportunity for business students to get real-life experience in operations and problem solving with Chipotle.
Amar led students in conducting the Chipotle study. Amar assigned the project to students in his Organizational Behavior and Operations Management courses.
Frankie Maier, a junior finance major and Organizational Behavior student, said the students were tasked to visit the Chipotle in Springfield, N.J., or any convenient location if they were not able to visit this one, to observe sanitary procedures in the restaurant.
Students then reconvened with classmates in smaller groups to share their findings and then revisited Chipotle after February 8 at various times.
“At this point, the scandal was coming to a close, the investigation was kind of closing, and a lot of their new rules and regulations were being implemented,” Maier said of her second visit to the Springfield Chipotle. “It was kind of to see how your first experience compared to your second experience.”
The new safety procedures put in place include high resolution testing for the vegetables and marinating chicken only at night when the vegetables have been put away.
According Chipotle’s food safety page, “high resolution testing is the practice of taking a large number of samples from a relatively small amount of the ingredient.”
Through this experiment, Amar said he was trying to teach his students “how leaders should understand the behavior of the people who work for them, and how their behavior becomes inconsistent with what the company wants, and how to bring it back.”
Amar referred to Chipotle as a “young company,” founded by Steve Ells in 1995, that became successful quickly.
In its third quarter during the 2015 fiscal year Chipotle opened 53 new locations, taking its 2015 total to 150 restaurants, according to Forbes.com.
“It is not uncommon for companies during this stage of evolution to hit a rock, hit something where things like what happened at Chipotle will happen,” Amar said.
Sultan Hardaway, a senior business management major and Operations Management student, said that he saw Chipotle employees not wearing gloves or hairnets while working with food at the Springfield location.
“They just wear snapback hats or little visors,” Hardaway said. “Some procedures I felt that they should’ve been more cautious about, and I didn’t see that there.”
Hardaway said that during his visit, he witnessed an employee answer a phone while mixing a dish for the assembly line without wearing gloves or washing his hands after hanging up.
Grant Palluzi, a junior sports management major and Organizational Behavior student, said that Chipotle’s issues can be found in any other fast food restaurant.
“Most workers don’t normally use gloves in a lot of businesses,” Palluzi said. “I’ve worked in the food industry for a few years too, and it’s something that a lot of workers don’t like.”
While Palluzi did not specify other fast food restaurants besides Chipotle that are in the practice of not using gloves, he did specify that the workers at the West Orange Chipotle location both cleaned and scooped food for a period of time with no gloves during his visit.
Mike Palazzolla, a junior finance major and Organizational Behavior student, commented on how Chipotle is handling the norovirus outbreak.
“It could be them doing this as more of a PR stunt and putting makeup on a pig, instead of them actually going and correcting the core health-related issues,” Palazzolla said. “They’re doing it to shut everyone up, but in the long run, they’re not really seeing what the true issue is, and that’s food storage and bacteria.”
Amar has sent a letter on March 9 to Steve Ells inviting him and his team to attend the conference on April 13, where all of the students that participated in the experiment will share their findings and their suggestions for improvement.
The conference will be held at 1:30 p.m. in the Jubilee Auditorium. All students are invited to attend the conference. Attendance is free.
Chipotle representatives have received the letter, but it is not known whether they will be attending the conference or not. Amar said that the conference will take place with or without Chipotle representatives in attendance.
Brianna Bernath can be reached at email@example.com.