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Chipotle coupons

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A couple of years ago, a fake coupon started making the rounds on Facebook, promising free food at Chipotle. The restaurant chain quickly branded it a hoax, telling fans that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch – or burrito for that matter.”

Fast forward a couple of years, and Chipotle is giving away free-food coupons like they’re going out of style.

And all because of those pesky E. coli outbreaks that sickened dozens of people, all of whom who paid good money for their burritos.

The chain has been struggling to bounce back from the negative publicity surrounding the two outbreaks last year. So last month, it gave away millions of coupons for free food, to help drive traffic to its 2,000 locations. And now, with restaurant traffic still lagging, Chipotle is doubling down and giving away tens of millions more coupons.

It seems there is such thing as a free lunch after all. Millions and millions of them.

The February offer “was our first test to see how much people really wanted to come back to Chipotle,” the company’s chief creative officer Mark Crumpacker told an industry conference yesterday. Customers were asked to send a text to receive a mobile coupon for a free entree. More than five million people did, and two-thirds of them redeemed the offer, “which is an extraordinarily high number,” Crumpacker said.

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To keep those customers coming back, more mobile offers may be on the way. In the meantime, the company is already in the process of sending 21 million direct-mailed free-food coupons across the country.

Paper coupons may prove to be a better strategy to get more customers through Chipotle’s doors – because there’s no telling how many of those 3.5 million people who redeemed the February mobile offer, were the same person.

Hungry hackers, who were apparently unconcerned about E. coli, quickly figured out ways to take advantage of the free food offer. “Here’s how to get infinite free burritos from Chipotle,” one online tutorial read. It recommended creating fake Google Voice phone numbers, and using them to text for free coupons over and over again. “To feed the hungry,” it added disingenuously.

At least one Chipotle fan went about getting his free burritos a different way – by stealing others’ free burritos. Many coupon recipients, for some reason, decided to share their good fortune at receiving a free coupon, by tweeting a screen shot of their mobile coupon. And then Twitter user “Eli” brought that screen shot to his local Chipotle and redeemed the single-use offer before the unsuspecting original recipient had a chance to.

“I do not have any remorse for nabbing these burritos,” Eli told New York magazine. “How could you be that oblivious to the fact that you just tweeted a free Chipotle coupon out?”

The people whose coupons were stolen weren’t too happy. And there’s no condoning those who used fake phone numbers to get more than their fair share of freebies. But Chipotle actually may not mind so much. If certain customers are so intent on coming to the restaurant that they’re willing to go to great lengths to score free food, that’s a level of loyalty that Chipotle isn’t about to discourage.

The real question is whether the millions of customers who got free burritos will keep coming back once the free-food coupons run out. For now, at least – with millions of new free coupons out there, and millions more on the way – Chipotle doesn’t plan to find out.

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