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Why all Chipotle restaurants are closing on Feb. 8

The food company, which built a reputation on serving 'food with integrity,' has a lot of work to do to salvage a tarnished reputation after a rash of food safety scandals swept through its restaurants last fall.

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    A Chipotle restaurant at Union Station in Washington. Chipotle says it will start a marketing push in February to begin its road to recovery after a series of food safety problems at restaurants nationwide.
    Gene J. Puskar/AP/File
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Chipotle Mexican Grill confirmed to multiple news outlets this week that it would be closing all of its stores next month in conjunction with a company-wide meeting to discuss company practices regarding food safety. Chipotle locations will be closed for a few hours while the company’s staff discusses a range of issues, Chris Arnold, the company's spokesman, wrote in a Thursday e-mail to the Chicago Tribune.

"We want to thank our teams for all of their hard work, to discuss some of the changes we are making to enhance food safety, to talk about the [restaurant’s] role in all of that and to answer questions from employees," he said.

Last year, Chipotle temporarily closed all of its Seattle and Portland restaurants in order to sanitize and inspect their ingredient stores after what health officials said was an outbreak of E.coli there. In December, a Boston-area location was shut down temporarily after health officials reported that nearly 200 Boston College students came down with a food-borne illness.

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The company's rash of food safety problems began in August of 2015 when health officials and the company reported that 64 customers in Minnesota were sickened with salmonella, and 100 Chipotle customers in southern California were reported with norovirus.

It will be difficult for Chipotle to weather the damage that these cases have done to its brand, especially as a company whose entire reputation has been pinned on serving “food with integrity.” Many of the affected customers have either already sued or are preparing lawsuits against the restaurant chain. Chipotle is also the subject of a criminal investigation examining whether there was any wrongdoing in how the company chose to handle its food safety problems.

Chipotle says it has chosen to not begin a marketing campaign to restore customer trust until its ongoing safety problems are officially resolved, which may put an even bigger constraint on its ability to restore its image in the short term. In the interim, the company has made several announcements on the changes it has made in handling food safety.

In December, Steve Ells, Chipotle’s founder and co-chief executive, publicly apologized, saying that Chipotle was introducing new safety measures including having some foods prepared in a central kitchen before they are sent to individual locations.

“We’re doing a lot to rectify this and to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said. 

Earlier this month, Ells took a more optimistic tone. "We know that Chipotle is as safe as it's ever been before," he said at a conference in Orlando, Fla. He outlined steps the company is taking with suppliers to check the quality of ingredients, but noted that the process would be difficult  because Chipotle sources its 64 different ingredients from more than 100 local producers.

Still, Ells said, “I don’t think we’ll ever be finished. We will always look for ways to have a more robust food safety practice.” 

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