Will Chipotle Continue Its Dominance of Fast Casual?

After a remarkable fourth quarter, Chipotle Mexican Grill's status as the "king" of fast casual was established. The results were even more impressive when compared to the sluggish restaurant industry. But in this competitive industry, investors are wondering if Chipotle can keep fast-casual counterparts Noodles & Company and Panera Bread at bay. 

Chipotle reports first-quarter earnings this Thursday. Here's what to watch.


Same-store sales and market footprint
In its most recent quarter, Chipotle's same-store sales grew a whopping 9.3%. That's remarkably impressive, made more so by comparison to the comparable sales growth of strong competitors like Panera Bread (1.3%) and Noodles & Company (4.7%). This discrepancy says much more about Chipotle's unusual growth than anything specifically negative pertaining to Noodle, or Panera. 

But it's important to remember that Chipotle likely won't give us a number like that again. That's not a bad thing, even if the market treats it that way.

After all, last quarter's figure was Chipotle's highest comparable sales result since 2012, and it bucked the flat (or negative) growth experienced by most restaurants, thanks to miserable weather.

Same-store sales really matter for restaurants, because it gives us an idea of how sustainable the concept (and growth) is. At the end of its fourth quarter, Chipotle had 1,595 total restaurants. By comparison, that gives it substantially more locations than Noodles & Company's 380 stores, and with management planning on adding at least 180 new locations this year, it's closing in on Panera's (nearly) 1,800 locations. 

Some analysts think Chipotle could support twice its current store count (or more), and with industry-leading comps, it's hard to disagree. But new Chipotle locations will make it much easier for burrito lovers to access Chipotle, so you should expect comparable sales growth to be (slightly) less robust at some point. And that's what makes Chipotle's ShopHouse concept so important: We need it to work because it can keep comparable sales growth high even as traditional Chipotle stores expand. 

So here's what investors should be listening for this quarter. Expect comparable sales to grow at a slower rate than last quarter's staggering figure. If comps can stay positive (say, higher than 3%), and if management also gives some more details about ShopHouse's  plans for 2014 and beyond, then this should be viewed as a solid quarter. 

Cost headwinds 
Last quarter, Chipotle's food, beverage, and packaging costs rose 22%. The company still grew net income by 17.8%. Management also recently said that a move to a $10 minimum wage would hurt Chipotle less than most restaurant chains, because the average worker already makes about $9 per hour. 

With all that said, food costs have surged lately, particularly beef costs, and Chipotle's ability to control those costs will be a key to its growth plans. For this earnings call, let's listen for guidance on Chipotle's costs as well as management's comments on how the company is handling increases.

So far, the company has established tremendous pricing power over its peers, and investors should be aware of how essential this is to an investment thesis for Chipotle.

Some analysts think Chipotle's stock is "expensive" (even though it trades at just 30 times forward earnings). For this reason, it would not surprise me if the stock had a good quarter (but not a great one), and the stock sold off anyway. 

That type of nonsensical drop hasn't happened since 2012, and it turned out to be a wonderful buying opportunity. Stocks that miss analysts' earnings guesses, or ones that give realistic outlooks, often sell off despite strong results

Chipotle, thanks to its anti-GMO stance, is viewed as both uniquely delicious and healthy by its loyal fans. Those two things rarely mix, and when they do, restaurants tend to print money as a result.

If Chipotle can exhibit positive comparable sales, and if the ShopHouse rollout is working, all while containing costs, you should stay bullish on the company (even if Mr. Market does not). 

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The article Will Chipotle Continue Its Dominance of Fast Casual? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Adem Tahiri has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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