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Is Growth on Chipotle's Menu?

However, this is not the same bulletproof company that once had the Street believing valuation didn't matter. The Street now seems schizophrenic in how it wants to appraise the business, which has also impacted upon the stock.

There is no sign the rising cost of food, up 22% in the quarter, is going to slow. This is one of the reasons why rivals including McDonald's have begun to adjust menu items and prices.

Although Chipotle said that it plans to raise the prices on its menu, this may have an adverse effect in a challenged economy. Chipotle showed better cost management to offset the rising cost of beef but the company still has to answer that important question: Where's the growth to come from this year and beyond?



While commenting on the company's results, Steve Ells, Chipotle's chairman and CEO, mentioned (among other things) the company may consider catering at some point this year. Catering sounds "different," but without knowing the associated costs it's tough to get bullish on the concept.

I'm not certain this will have much of an impact in the near term. Investors who are paying for growth today want assurances that margin and comps will begin to move in the right direction again.

Unfortunately, management only guided for flat to low-single-digit comps for all of 2013. While Chipotle prides itself on being different, I'm not so certain that it is. Yum's Taco Bell has a similar business model and so does Qdoba Mexican Grill, which is owned by Jack In The Box (JACK). The latter is struggling to compete and posted just 2.4% growth in comps for the fiscal 2012.

Bottom Line

From the standpoint of Chipotle being different, I haven't been able to tell. Chipotle is seen as a "new concept" but it really isn't. Taco Bell has been doing the same thing for years.

Perhaps Chipotle management believes catering will make the difference. Raise your hand if you've never heard of catering before.

Chipotle needs to be more forthright about the competition, and investors need to be more realistic about expectations.

At the time of publication, the author held no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

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