Chipotle works to regain customer trust after disease outbreak

NEW YORK - Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG), its reputation stained and shares damaged after customers were sickened eating the restaurant chain's food, is trying to assure people that it's safe to return.

Chipotle outlets across the U.S. are opening later than usual Monday so workers can attend a meeting about the chain's recent food safety scares. The company says stores will open at 3 p.m. in their local time zones, instead of the usual 11 a.m.

Chipotle expects about 50,000 employees to go to more than 400 locations, such as movie theaters and hotel conference rooms. As part of the campaign to win back the public's confidence, remarks by company executives will be shown live and shared over social media.

The meeting comes after Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. saw its sales slammed by food scares, including an E. coli outbreak and norovirus cases. In January, sales plunged 36 percent at stores open at least 13 months.

Now the company is plotting a comeback, with its largest marketing campaign yet to start this week.

The Chipotle episode began last summer when the chain was tied to foodborne illnesses in California and Minnesota, though those cases didn't get as much attention.

Then at the end of October, E. coli cases were reported in Oregon and Washington, prompting the company to shut down 43 restaurants in those states. YouGov Brand Index said customer perceptions about Chipotle sank to their lowest level since it began tracking the company in 2007. That was before additional cases popped up in seven more states.

In November, Chipotle sales plunged 16 percent. Then an unrelated norovirus outbreak sickened dozens of students at Boston College. And in December, the CDC reported five more cases of E. coli the previous month linked to Chipotle, which it said might be part of a different outbreak.

Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells apologized last month for the E. coli outbreak. The company has pledged to tighten food safety procedures to prevent further such incidents.

The company disclosed last month that it has been subpoenaed by federal prosecutors and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as part of a criminal investigation.

The federal agency that monitors public health says the outbreak of E. coli illness linked to Chipotle (CMG) restaurants that sickened 60 people appears to be over.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week ended an investigation into the most recent illness reported to the agency started on Dec. 1.

Chipotle shares have fallen nearly 39 percent since October, closing Friday at $459.98. The company on Tuesday reported that its fourth-quarter earnings had plunged 44 percent.