Chipotle's Still Sizzling Ahead of Earnings

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- If you want to define "chipotle," as in Chipotle Mexican Grill ( CMG), just take look a the company's stock price, which is up close 20% over the past three months and is up 50% year-to-date. At a price-to-earnings ratio of 46, more than twice the valuation of Yum! Brands ( YUM), these shares carry some eponymous heat.

I don't deny that Chipotle has built itself into a leading fast-casual restaurant that's posting strong growth and above-average margins. To the extent that the company now deserves a P/E that is almost 3-times that of McDonald's ( MCD), I don't believe it does. Not to mention this leaves absolutely no margin for error in an environment where discretionary remains unstable.

I will credit Chipotle management for growing same-store sales and managing costs. On Thursday, when Chipotle reports third-quarter results, the company will get a chance to convince the Street that the valuation is deserved. Analysts will be looking for earnings of $2.78 per share on revenue of $820.28 million, which would represent earnings and revenue growth of 22% and 17%, respectively.

Given that Chipotle has consistently posted double-digit profit and revenue growth, the Street is not expecting the company to divert much from its historical performance. What I am interested in (among other things) is how the company continues deal with the rising costs of chicken and beef from suppliers like Tyson ( TSN).

If anything has kept the stock sizzling, it's been Chipotle's strong restaurant-level margins, which registered an astounding 27.6% in the July quarter. While that number is significantly higher than both McDonald's and Yum! Brands, I did notice a 160-basis point decrease. Chipotle has called that a "trivial" decrease. But let's not forget that it was preceded by 110-basis point decrease in the April quarter.

Now, I don't want to make too much this, but should restaurant-level margins decrease again on Thursday, it then becomes a trend. My issue here is that, while Chipotle's overall profit margins still remain high relative to its quick-service peers like Panera ( PNRA) and Qdoba, which is owned by Jack in the Box ( JACK), this is because Chipotle operates a premium-priced restaurant.

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