Chipotle Leading the Pack

NEW YORK, N.Y. ( TheStreet) -- Shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill ( CMG) heated up Thursday after the burrito chain posted stellar quarterly financials late Wednesday that beat expectations and outpaced its fast-casual restaurant peers.

Chipotle booked strong double-digit growth in sales and profits, while comparable same-store sales -- or sales at stores open at least one year -- grew 8.7% year-over-year. The Mexican-style chain reported earnings of $46.5 million, or $1.46 per share, on revenue of $466.8 million.
 Chipotle

Denver-based Chipotle opened its 1,000th restaurant last quarter, and forecast mid- to high-single digit comp sales growth for fiscal 2010.

"Pretty strong comps was the biggest surprise," Oppenheimer analyst Matthew J. DiFrisco told TheStreet. "They're at the top of the pack in industry leading comps, up there with Starbucks ( SBUX)."

Coffee giant Starbucks also beat top-line expectations when it reported quarterly financials this week, and booked adjusted profits per share that surpassed analysts' consensus call.

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Starbucks' same-store sales in the U.S. jumped 9% in the thirteen weeks ended June 27, besting estimates for growth of 6%.

Chipotle's numbers were especially strong in comparison to other fast-casual chains that reported this week. BJ's Restaurants ( BJRI) grew comps 5.3% year-over-year, The Cheesecake Factory ( CAKE) was up 1.6% and Ruby Tuesday ( RT) managed just 0.3%.

Such a strong fundamental from Chipotle led DiFrisco to raise his earnings estimates for the company by 14 cents for 2010 to $5.11 per share, and by 20 cents for 2011 to $5.85. Stifel Nicolaus analyst Steve West was even more bearish after the report, raising his estimate for 2010 EPS by 30 cents to $5.15 and for 2011 by 40 cents to $6.05.

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Investors chimed in with their vote of confidence as well, bidding Chipotle shares up more than 8% Friday.

Despite the enthusiasm, DiFrisco cautioned that Chipotle's margin expansion is bound to slow down the next few quarters, and he voiced concern about its aggressive development schedule being backend weighted. In other words, the company opened 45 new stores in the first half of 2010, leaving 75 to 85 left to open in the second half, according to its own projections.

"That leaves a risk of Chipotle coming in at the low end of that or even below it," he said.

The analyst attributed Chipotle's dramatic stock increase Friday to profit taking on a short squeeze, or investors who had shorted the stock covering their positions by purchasing shares.

Huntington Beach, Calif.-based BJs also enjoyed significant gains in revenues and earnings last quarter. DiFrisco was impressed by the small brand's ability to expand outside its native California market, citing double-digit comp trends in Ohio where the chain has four stores. By comparison, California Pizza Kitchen ( CPKI) experienced some difficulties when it moved to expand outside its home state, the analyst said.

BJ's strong showing offered promise of similarly healthy margins over time as it continues to spread out in the U.S.

Conversely, Cheesecake's comp numbers were relatively soft at under 2%, and the figure slowed from May to June. In California it reported a 1% decrease in comps, a cause for concern, DiFrisco said.

Cheesecake also suffered a decline in average check totals "as incremental customers looked to spend less and play on the menu at lower price points." If consumers continue to bring in less money and the restaurant chain continues to have the same fixed costs, it will eventually breed lower margins, DiFrisco noted.

-- Reported by Miriam Marcus Reimer from New York.

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