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Chipotle Is Almost Out of the Woods

To be seen is whether Chipotle truly is a premium brand, or not. A key test for investors, is whether the restaurant chain can raise prices of popular menu items.

Wells Fargo analyst Jeff Farmer had expected Chipotle to announce a price increase in the first quarter, but now expects a 3%-to-5% increase later in 2013.

Such a move could bolster profits but test the loyalty of value oriented consumers. It could also prove or disprove some of the key pieces of David Einhorn's own analysis when shorting Chipotle shares.

Recent concerns such as slowing growth trends, commodity price inflation and valuation, meanwhile, are unlikely to surprise investors given the challenges Chipotle faced at the end of 2012.

Chipotle also has natural earnings and cash flow growth, even if trends have indicated slowing growth in profitability.

For instance, a recent presentation from Chipotle chief financial officer Jack Hartung indicated the company sees a 71.5% return from the $800,000 it costs to open each new restaurant.

Since 2009, Chipotle has grown its store count from just under 1,000 restaurants to 1,400 at the end of 2012, however, the company has seen an 80% rise in revenue and an over 100% increase in net income over that period. The company opened 183 new restaurants in 2012 and it reaffirmed forecasts for up to 180 store openings in 2013.

Ultimately, as earnings at Chipotle rise and margin pressures alleviate, the company has a path to recapturing 2012 stock price highs. Proving a premium market position by way of price increases and new products remain a key test.

Bottom Line: After first-quarter earnings, Chipotle has less left to prove to skeptical investors.

-- Written by Antoine Gara in New York
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