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After safety scares and tumbling stock, Chipotle founder and CEO steps down

by Associated Press / / Source: Associated Press
A Chipotle Mexican Grill is seen in Los Angeles, California on April 25, 2016.LUCY NICHOLSON / Reuters, file

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Chipotle is looking for a new CEO to help it recover from a series of food safety scares and slumping sales and return to its heyday, when consumers flocked to its casual Mexican dining restaurants for quality ingredients at a reasonable price.

Founder Steve Ells, who currently serves as chairman and CEO, will transition to executive chairman once someone new is in place at the top post.

 A Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant. JASON REDMOND / AFP - Getty Images, file

Ells started Chipotle Mexican Grill with a single restaurant in Denver in 1993. The chain resonated with consumers, who started heading to Chipotle locations instead of fast food restaurants because of its fresh ingredients and the ability for customers to interact with workers while their food is prepared.

But recent years have seen Chipotle struggle, and it reported disappointing third-quarter results last month. The company has been working to convince customers that its food is safe since 2015, when its sales plunged after an E. coli outbreak. It has made some progress, but concerns rose again this summer after one of its restaurants in Virginia was temporarily closed after dozens of diners fell ill.

Chipotle has said that it will make a series of changes to try and win back customers. It will continue to develop new menu items, including frozen margaritas and salads; retrain workers to better serve customers; and slow the number of new stores it opens next year to better focus on already opened restaurants.

"While we are continuing to make progress, it is clear that we need to move faster to make improvements," Ells said in a statement on Wednesday. The executive said that by bringing in a new CEO it will allow him to focus on his strengths, which include finding innovative ways to source and prepare the chain's food.

Chipotle said Wednesday that the CEO search committee, which includes Ells, is looking for someone with turnaround expertise in part to help address the challenges facing the company, build customer trust and improve sales.

Shares surged 5 percent in premarket trading.

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