Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (CMG) - Get Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. Report beat expectations after the bell Tuesday when it reported fourth-quarter earnings, temporarily quashing speculation that it could be a takeover target.
The stock was nosediving by nearly 10% in premarket trading to $274.99.
The chain reported earnings of $43.8 million, or $1.34 per share after excluding some one-time tax gains. That exceeded analyst estimates for $1.32 a share in profits.
Despite the earnings beat, CMG shares fell 4.74% in after-hours trading, dropping to $289.90 at around 5:30 p.m. ET. The stock has been sliding for months, falling nearly 40% from a $499 intraday peak last spring to about $304.33 as of Tuesday's regular-session close ahead of earnings. Chipotle has dropped amid health-and-safety concerns and damaged public perception following outbreaks of foodborne illnesses at some restaurants.
Analysts said a weak report for the latest quarter could have increased pressure on the chain to sell itself. "There has been a lot of private equity activity in the restaurant space," John Zolidis of Quo Vadis Capital Inc. told TheStreet on Tuesday. "Roark [Capital Group] said they plan to acquire more."
Roark owns names such as Arby's and finalized the purchase of Buffalo Wild Wings on Tuesday. The combined Arby's/Buffalo Wild Wings entity is called Inspire Brands, and Inspire CEO Paul Brown told TheStreet's Executive Editor Brian Sozzi on Tuesday he wants to do more deals.
Analysts say a further dip in Chipotle's stock price could make the company more digestible as a target. In addition to Roark, JAB Holding Co. -- which recently bought Panera Bread Co. and Keurig Green Mountain -- has been eyeing restaurant deals. Restaurant Brands International (QSR) - Get Restaurant Brands International Inc Report , which acquired Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen for $1.8 billion in early 2017, could also by hungry for such an acquisition.
But Zolidis said Chipotle remains expensive despite its recent fall from grace, trading at about 14 times projected 2018 EBITDA.
"For someone to acquire Chipotle two conditions would have to be met," he said. "[The buyer] would have to be willing to pay a large premium at the upper end of the range for restaurant deals, and they would also have to believe in the ability to accelerate growth and margins relative to the current trend of the business. Chipotle is a 'fix-me' story." To justify such a premium, it's likely that Chipotle would have to show it can reverse course and produce growth in the near term.
Consider JAB's recent acquisition of Panera. Panera's stock had been trading at 16 times EBITDA at the time. That deal, which closed in April, meant that JAB acquired Panera for some $7.5 billion, or $315 per share in cash and the assumption of about $340 million of net debt.
Using the same multiple for Chipotle, Zolidis estimated that CMG could go for $350 a share -- well above its recent price of $304 or so. However, he thinks a takeover is unlikely, as Chipotle is currently searching for a new CEO with turnaround experience. In November, Steve Ells -- the company's CEO, founder and chairman -- announced he would relinquish the CEO role once a new person is in place.
"It's hard to get a new candidate under those circumstances," unless the plan is to fix the company and then sell it, Zolidis said.
Still, Chipotle has its champions, including Piper Jaffray analyst Nicole Miller Reagan. She wrote in a note on Sunday that "we view an eventual CEO appointment, menu price increase and lower tax rate as catalysts making CMG shares a favored contrarian stock or recovery stock for the year."
Chipotle is also a holding of Bill Ackman's Pershing Square Capital Management LLP. Pershing Square owned 10.21% of Chipotle as of Sept. 30, 2017, according to FactSet.
(This story has been updated with numbers from Chipotle's earnings release.)