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Chipotle tries to rebuild trust with parents after safety crisis

By: Leslie Patton, Bloomberg News
March 22, 2017 Updated: March 22, 2017 at 1:39 pm
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FILE - This Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, file photo, shows a Chipotle restaurant in Union Station in Washington. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, that the E. coli outbreak at Chipotle restaurants appears to be over, and that they are closing the investigation. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Chipotle Mexican Grill, whose rapid growth was fueled by millennials enamored of the chain's signature fresh ingredients, is looking to families to help it recover from a food-safety crisis that tarnished its carefully crafted image.

The burrito chain has produced a new kids video series for iTunes that aspires to get children and parents talking about how to make healthier, more informed food choices. The unbranded show is the latest of Chipotle's video productions, which have included animated films about the dangers of industrial farming. The chain also has advertised free meals for kids recently, hoping to draw more families.

"It's important for us," Mark Crumpacker, chief creative and development officer, said in an interview. "We want the parents to come more than anything. It's not as if we have a desire to grow some sort of kids menu business. It's really so that parents can come and have some options."

Chipotle has been trying to lure back customers with free food and heavier advertising after a series of food-poisoning outbreaks in 2015 battered sales. Those attempts have largely fallen flat, with same-store sales - a closely watched gauge - dropping 4.8 percent in the most recent quarter. Parents may have been reluctant to eat at Chipotle after the food-poisoning incidents, Crumpacker said.

"We need to rebuild trust," he said. "And we certainly need to do that with parents."

Chipotle has always appealed to young diners. It was founded on a college campus in 1993, and the majority of the customers at its 2,250 restaurants are between ages 18 and 35, according to Crumpacker.

Now Chipotle is counting on families to help it rebuild sales. In 2009, the company introduced a new children's menu with tacos, quesadillas and a build-your-own option. Last year, in the wake of the crisis, it tried drawing diners with a new promo: a free kid's meal with the purchase of an entree during Sundays in September.

This year, the Denver-based company will spend about 3 percent of sales on marketing, compared with 5 percent in 2016.

Chipotle spent about $2 million on the iTunes series, called "Rad Lands," which it says was in production before the illness outbreaks. It's charging $4.99 for the first season and will share revenue with Apple, Crumpacker said. The company said the show won't promote Chipotle's restaurants.

The Magic Store, creator of the popular television show "Yo Gabba Gabba!" produced the series. The production company has never partnered with a food brand in the past, said Scott Schultz, executive producer at The Magic Store. Chipotle was very open-minded about creating the show, which features both animation and characters played by actors, he said.

"I've really steered away from brands," Schultz said. "This was the first time where what the only thing that they wanted was something that I already believed in."

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