Chipotle Joins the Asian Invasion

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Should Asian fast-casual operators start shaking behind their hibachis? Chipotle (NYS: CMG) founder Steve Ells is a man on a mission: to prove that the philosophy behind his burritos can work in Asian fast-casual, too. There's only one concept restaurant now, but its success could transform the company's future and might even change the way you think about Asian food.

You like Thai?
This foray into the Far East makes a lot of business sense, but Chipotle is keeping the new concept restaurant, dubbed ShopHouse, very low-key. There's currently no marketing blitz planned for its single Washington, D.C., location, and customers won't be told of the restaurant's connection to the burrito chain. There's not yet even a functional website. Chipotle management's current focus is still its flagship brand, and it's easy to see why, given the explosion of Mexican fast-casual chains over the past decade.

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Sources: SEC filings and news releases.

Chipotle's the market leader for Mexican fast-casual, but it faces stiff competition from the likes of Qdoba -- owned by Jack in the Box (NAS: JACK) -- and Baja Fresh. Recent upstart Moe's Southwest Grill has grown nearly as quickly as Chipotle on a yearly basis, which is impressive considering that it's been in existence little more than half as long and has never had McDonald's (NYS: MCD) deep pockets to reach into, as Chipotle originally did.

On the other hand, the Asian fast-casual scene is dominated by privately held Panda Express and its predominantly Chinese menu, with P.F. Chang's (NAS: PFCB) similarly styled Pei Wei Asian Diner a distant second. That leaves a lot of room for a Thai-dyed chain to make its mark, which seems to be Ells' plan - he's taken his cues from Southeast Asia, right down to a two-story building design that evokes urban shops of the region.

Give me one with everything
I enjoy Chipotle as much as the next guy. So do many investors, which is why the company's sporting a P/E vastly higher than its former parent, not to mention most of its competitors. That's largely based on Chipotle's ability to swiftly sling burritos to an insatiable public -- its best locations can move through 300 customers an hour, which helps push the company to an industry-leading profit margin. You can get any of the items available in any combination you'd like, even including the carnivore special, a bowlful of all four of Chipotle's available meat offerings.

And there's one of the questions the new concept faces. It's not so much that ShopHouse is yet another Asian chain as that Chipotle's ability to create mix-and-match meals is untested in a style that most consumers don't connect with a mix-and-match approach. Tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and bowls full of meat all can be built out of the same basic ingredients. Can the same rapid assembly-line process -- sustainably sourced local ingredients and all -- be applied to Asian food that tends to have more nuanced flavors and more varied cooking processes? It will be a tricky proposition to get right, but if it works, then the company might have just found a way to double its growth rate in the coming years.

Keep your eye on how these companies handle Chipotle's next big thing by adding them to your Watchlist:

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At the time this article was published Fool contributorAlex Planesholds one burrito with everything, but he has no financial stake in any company mentioned here. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill and McDonald's and creating a iron condor position in Chipotle Mexican Grill. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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