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Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. (NYSE:CMG)

Q4 2009 Earnings Call

February 11, 2010 4:30 pm ET

Executives

Kate Giha – Director, Investor Relations

M. Steven Ells – Founder, Chairman, Co-Chief Executive Officer

Montgomery F. Moran – Co-Chief Executive Officer

Jack Hartung – Chief Financial Officer

Analysts

Jeffrey Omohundro - Wells Fargo Securities, LLC

Jason West - Deutsche Bank Securities

Sharon Zackfia - William Blair & Company

David Tarantino - Robert W. Baird & Co., Inc.

John Glass - Morgan Stanley

Jake Bartlett for Matthew Difrisco - Oppenheimer & Co.

Greg Ruedy - Stephens, Inc.

Joseph Buckley - BofA Merrill Lynch

[Bart Glen] – D. A. Davidson

Robert Derrington - Morgan, Keegan & Company, Inc.

Steve West - Stifel Nicolaus & Company, Inc.

Tom Forte - Telsey Advisory Group

Operator

Good afternoon and welcome to the Chipotle fourth quarter and full year 2009 earnings conference call. (Operator Instructions) I would now like to turn the conference over to Chipotle’s Investor Relations Director, Kate Giha. Please go ahead.

Kate Giha

Hello everyone, and welcome to our call today. By now you should have access to our earnings announcement released this afternoon for our fourth quarter and full year 2009. It may also be found on our website at chipotle.com in the Investor Relations section.

Before we begin our presentation, I will remind everyone that parts of our discussion today will include forward-looking statements within the meanings of the Securities laws. These forward-looking statements will include a discussion of our marketing strategy and advertising plans for 2010; our real estate strategy and number of restaurants we intend to open; projections of restaurant comp sales and transaction trends; new restaurant development costs; and other statements of our expectations and plans. These forward-looking statements are based on information available to us today, and we are not assuming any obligation to update them.

Forward-looking statements are subject to risks and uncertainties that could cause our actual results to differ materially from the forward-looking statements. We refer you to the risk factors in our annual report on Form 10-K for 2008, as updated in our subsequent 10-Qs and in the Form 10-K for 2009 that we will file in the next couple of weeks, for a discussion of these risks.

Our discussion today will also include non-GAAP financial measures, a reconciliation of which can be found on the presentation page of the Investor Relations section of our website. I want to remind everyone that we have adopted a self imposed quiet period, restricting communications with investors during sensitive periods. The quiet period begins on the first day of the last month of each fiscal quarter and continues until the next earnings conference call. For the first quarter, it will begin March 1 and continue until our first quarter release in April.

On the call with us today are Steve Ells, our Founder, Chairman and Co-Chief Executive Officer; Monty Moran, Co-Chief Executive Officer; and Jack Hartung, Chief Financial Officer. After their comments, we’ll open the call for questions.

And with that out of the way, I’d like to turn the call over to Steve.

M. Steven Ells

Thanks Kate. Throughout the year, we remained focused on those elements of our business that improve the experience we provide our customers, specifically, working to increase the use of our premium quality ingredients from more sustainable sources; to refresh the design of our restaurants; to improve our marketing strategy and the way we communicate with our customers; and to bring the Chipotle experience to more and more customers through our expansion. Our continued focus in these areas allowed us to deliver impressive financial results for the year.

For the year, revenue increased 14% to $1.518 billion, with comparable restaurant sales up 2.2%. Our restaurant level operating margins for the year were just about 25%, up 340 basis points from the previous year, the highest we have experienced as a company. Net income for 2009 increased 62% to $126.8 million, leading to diluted earnings per share of $3.95, an increase of 67% over 2008.

On our quest to serve Food With Integrity, we have been working to increase our supply of naturally raised beef. As of today, more than 60% of all of our beef is naturally raised, but we expect to have 100% of our barbacoa, our spicy shredded beef, coming from these more sustainable sources in the coming months. We have also been working hard to find pasture raised dairy farms that can provide enough milk for our cheese and sour cream for us to move to 100% pasture raised dairy, and we expect to approach or clear that hurdle by the end of the year. This would be another first for Chipotle, as no other national restaurant company is using all pasture raised dairy.

To these Food With Integrity developments come on top of the many other milestones we have achieved over the last several years, including serving more naturally raised meat than any other restaurant company; being the only national restaurant company with significant commitments to local and organic produce, and becoming the first national restaurant company to serve dairy products made from milk from cows that are never given the synthetic hormone, RBGH.

In 2009 we began opening restaurants with a new design, and you can expect to see more of this new design in 2010. Like our menu, which uses simple ingredients in uncommon ways to create food that is more extraordinary, the design of our restaurant draws on a palate of basic building materials, but uses them in thoughtful and innovative ways to create an environment that is more interesting and that says something about the food we serve. The new design uses more environmentally friendly building materials and energy efficient systems, is less cluttered than the old design, and has smaller, more efficient kitchens than we have in our older restaurants. We expect this new design will be simpler to construct and will cost less than our old book, further improving our new restaurant economics.

At the beginning of 2009 we hired our first ever Chief Marketing Officer to help us improve our marketing. Today we are poised to launch a new advertising campaign that will speak more directly to Food With Integrity and our food culture, but in a tone that our customers will recognize as Chipotle. This campaign will appear in print, outdoor, on radio and online in markets around the country beginning in the second quarter. In addition, we’re developing a loyalty program that will reward our best customers but also provide a tool for us to educate our customers about the things that we do that make us different.

We will also be introducing new packaging in our restaurants in the coming months. The new design incorporates messages on all the bags and cups, giving us additional opportunities to help educate the customers and empower them to help share our story. Our new marketing strategy has been long time in the making and we feel like we have a really great approach now.

We also continue to make use of other components of our marketing program including PR to help us tell the story. On that front, we began 2010 with a segment on the Oprah Winfrey show, reaching some 5 million people as part of a larger conversation about issues in food. This appearance promoted an increasing curiosity about Chipotle and our Food With Integrity efforts, which we saw in both our restaurants and through visits to our website in the days immediately following the segment. Many of the comments came from people who were not familiar with Chipotle and our story. And we have more non-traditional marketing components lined up throughout the year.

Lastly, we’ll continue to focus on thoughtful expansion this year, with the newest piece of that being our first opening in Europe, which will be in London in May. While we describe our entry into Europe as introducing the Chipotle brand and beginning to build a team of future leaders there, we expect the seeds we plant today to turn into growth opportunities for us in the future. With that in mind, we are actively searching for additional sites in London and have also begun to look for locations in Paris and other cities in Germany.

To aid our development in Europe, we have moved Rex Jones, who has been serving as our Chief Development Officer, into the role of Executive Director of Real Estate, focusing solely on international expansion. Rex has more than ten years of international real estate experience and is uniquely qualified to help us expand in overseas markets. Bob Blessing, who had been serving as our Restaurant Support Officer, will take the role of Chief Development Officer.

We firmly believe that we remain on the right path to continue to grow Chipotle in a way that is responsible, both in terms of pursuing our vision to change the way people think about and eat fast food and increasing shareholder value. And we remain focused on these few key drivers of our business in the right way to move forward. I’ll now turn the call over to Monty.

Montgomery F. Moran

Thanks, Steve. I’m really proud of the results we achieved during 2009, as these are difficult economic times and frankly our results far exceeded what we thought was possible when the year began. And while the financial results themselves are impressive, what’s most satisfying to me is how we achieved these results.

We didn’t begin the year planning to deliver record margins, but our top performing restaurateurs demonstrated that they can run better restaurants, cook and serve better food, provide better service and lower labor costs at the same time by insuring that their team was comprised of only top performers. And when our top performing restaurateurs set this example, our general managers quickly followed their lead.

We don’t use any tricks or memorized statements to coax our crew into providing good service, but our managers look to hire only people who are happy and energetic, ambitious and hospitable, respectful and conscientious, so providing great customer service and treasuring each and every customer who visits Chipotle comes naturally to them. Likewise, we didn’t start the year demanding that our rate of internal promotions to manager increase from 60% to 85%, but again by hiring only top performers at the crew level, our stronger bench of talent naturally stepped up to take on 85% of the new manager positions. It’s incredibly satisfying for us to see what a high performing, empowered team of restaurant managers and crew can accomplish.

They hire and develop our future leaders, run great restaurants that are always clean and organized, proudly serve great tasting food made from the very best ingredients, treat our customers to the best service and the best overall dining experience they can, and they do all of this while running an efficient and successful business. So of course we’re pleased with the financial results, but it’s even more pleasing to know that it’s our special people culture that’s enabling these results; that empowered, talented leaders can set the bar even higher than we thought possible; that we have an anxious and excited bench of future leaders that are ready to run each new restaurant as it opens; and that this special people culture is still growing, so we can expect it to be even better this year than last.

The central piece of this special people culture continues to be the restaurateur, and this role is so important that Steve and I still interview every single restaurateur candidate. Today we have 155 restaurateurs around the country, running great restaurants with top performing crews and setting an example for all other managers to follow. These 155 restaurateurs are now mentoring 91 additional restaurants, so their influence now directly reaches almost 250 restaurants, or over 25% of our current restaurants. But they really influence all of our 956 restaurants as they provide a real life example and inspiration for all of our managers.

Every Chipotle manager is unique, as either already a restaurateur or working hard to become one someday soon. Our field support continues to evolve, with the restaurateur as the primary focus. Where we used to have area managers supervising seven or eight restaurants, that position is slowly being replaced by a growing class of team leaders, who have a proven track record of developing restaurateurs and oversee anywhere from 12 to more than 20 restaurants today.

And because our team leaders have earned their position by developing many restaurateurs, and because they know how to leverage the talent of the restaurateurs, they are able to oversee more restaurants. So this strong people culture that we’re building is intentionally focused on developing restaurateurs, on empowering those restaurateurs to influence more restaurants and recognizing and rewarding field support staff who are most effective in developing restaurateurs.

This approach to managing our restaurants allows us to leverage our best leaders, increase their influence throughout the company and build better teams. It also allows us to be more confident that we can grow our company successfully as we know that each new restaurant is more likely than ever to open with a strong team in place.

This will be the foundation of our company in the coming years, as we want all of our future leaders coming up through the ranks from manager to restaurateur and beyond. We’ve always said that we will grow only as fast as we can find great managers to run our restaurants and great real estate. And while our restaurateur program has helped us secure the first part of the equation, we are also working to supplement and improve our development pipeline through the addition of our A Model strategy. We already have very strong unit economics for new restaurant openings, and we believe the A Model strategy will enhance overall the restaurant economics; allow us to enter what we call Tier 2 areas, trade areas, in proven markets with greater confidence; and ultimately allow us to be more aggressive in our developing and new markets.

As a reminder, an A Model is a fully functioning Chipotle with a full Chipotle menu, so a customer who walks into an A Model would enjoy the same dining experience as they would in any other Chipotle. The restaurants will tend to be a little smaller than average and the investment costs, occupancy costs and operating costs will be lower than the traditional Chipotle. But the food and service will be identical and the restaurant trade dress will be unmistakably Chipotle.

In 2010 we expect about 25% of our openings will be Model A restaurants. And all of these openings will be in what we call Tier 2 locations in proven markets. Tier 2 locations are not new to us. We have developed a whole lot of them in the past. But while they have generally performed well, we have sometimes been reluctant to develop as many of them as possible out of a concern that the demographics may not support the investment. But the A Model allows us to confidently penetrate these locations in proven markets with expectations of very high returns.

Limiting A Model development to only proven markets this year will allow us to protect the strategy from a design, construction and operating standpoint without taking on unnecessary risks. Ultimately, though, A Models in new and developing markets, where our new stores average around $1 million to $1.1 million in first year sales, will generate higher returns than we experience today in those markets and will allow us to grow more aggressively.

Keep in mind that our closest competitors are delighted when they open stores at volumes of $1 million to $1.1 million, whereas historically we have been hesitant to add many more restaurants in these markets until the sales have ramped to higher levels. Our first two A Models opened last month and have exceeded our expectations so far in terms of sales, as well as initial investment. In the past, with our traditional investment and operating model, we would have struggled with the decision and may have passed on these deals because the demographics and population counts are not as strong as we would typically see. But as an A Model these sites became no- brainers from a return standpoint.

So our A Model strategy not only enhances our return expectations, but it allows us to aggressively pursue additional deals in proven markets today and soon will allow us to be more aggressive in penetrating new and developing markets while A Model, along with our strong pipeline of future managers currently being developed, causes us to be very optimistic about our growth prospects. I’ll now turn the call over to Jack.

Jack Hartung

Okay. Thanks, Monty. We’re very proud of the effort and the results delivered by our restaurant teams and support staff during 2009, and while we’re pleased with these overall financial results, we’re even more pleased with the strong position we are now in as we look to the future, both in 2010 and beyond. The food we serve is the best it has ever been as we continued our focus on investing to source high quality, sustainably raised ingredients. Our people culture is the strongest it’s ever been, resulting in a better dining experience for our customers and a strong bench of future managers.

Our unit economics for both existing and new restaurants are the strongest ever and we’re pursuing strategies including A Model, a new advertising strategy, and the introduction of Chipotle in Europe, all of which make us even more optimistic about what lies ahead. While we cannot influence the state of the economy, we can and have taken steps to make us stronger and better positioned for a bright future.

Looking back at 2009, our restaurant level margins were 24.9%, a 340 basis point increase from the prior year. These margins are the highest we have ever achieved and higher than any other restaurant company of our size that we’re aware of. These margins are attributable to our great business model, where we focus on just a few things but do them better than anyone else, combined with a strong people culture, where top performers not only run great operations but they also run a strong and efficient business.

More importantly, we’re able to deliver these industry leading margins while investing in more expensive, high quality raw ingredients and with affordable menu prices, so everyone can enjoy our great tasting food made with these premium ingredients.

Revenue for the fourth quarter increased 12.2% to $387.5 million and increased 14% to just over $1.5 billion for the year. Revenue growth for the quarter and for the year were driven primarily by new restaurants along with comps of 2% for the quarter and 2.2% for the year. The menu price increase we took in the fourth quarter of 2008 drove the comp, adding 2.4% in the quarter and 6% for the full year. It’s now been over a year since we took any price increase in any market, and in some markets its approaching two years. And though we believe we have pricing power relative to our competitors, with the current chain food inflation outlook, we don’t have any current plans to increase prices.

Now of course our stance may change depending on food inflation or to fund future food of integrity investments. But based on our current industry leading margins and the uncertainty with the economy and consumer confidence, we’re in a good position to be patient about menu prices.

In the fourth quarter, though we lost about 3.5% effective pricing from the third quarter, our comps held up pretty well at 2% and transactions turned slightly positive for the first time in several quarters. And they continue to be slightly positive into January. February sales trends haven’t been impacted so far by the severe winter weather and as uncertainty remains with the state of the economy, we’ve retained our previous comp guidance of flat for the full year.

EPS for the quarter was $0.99, up 90% from last year. And for the year EPS was $3.95, up 67% from 2008. Restaurant level margins were 24.5% for the quarter and 24.9% for the year, up 340 basis points for both the quarter and year. The positive effects of the menu price increase along with efficiencies in labor were partially offset by de-leveraging from fewer transactions to drive this margin expansion.

Food costs for the quarter decreased 200 basis points from 2008 to 30.1%. The decrease was mainly driven by the impact of the 2008 menu price increase, along with lower relative costs for avocados, beef, cheese and rice, for which prices increased dramatically during 2008. For the year, food costs decreased 170 basis points to 30.7%, driven mainly by the menu price increase.

Labor improved 90 basis points for the quarter and 100 basis points for the year compared to 2008 as our restaurant teams continued their focus on hiring and retaining only high performers, allowing our restaurants to run better and more efficiently than ever. As we enter 2010, we expect this labor leverage to end or even de-lever slightly for the year overall as we lap labor efficiencies from 2009 and due to wage inflation.

For the quarter, occupancy costs decreased 40 basis points to 7.8%. As you may recall, the fourth quarter of 2008 included 70 basis point impact from a one time, $2.6 million non-cash straight line rent charge. Without this charge in 2008, occupancy would have increased by 30 basis points. Increased occupancy costs continue to be driven by higher average rent, as proportionately more new restaurants are opened in more expensive trade areas. With only 25% of our openings in 2010 expected to be A Models, which should have lower average occupancy costs, we do not anticipate occupancy leverage in 2010 as the majority of our new restaurants will continue to be opened in more expense areas with these higher rents.

For the year, other operating costs [decreased] 80 basis points to 11.5%, fueled by the impact of the 2008 menu price increase and lower marketing and promotional expenses in 2009 as we pulled back on our marketing efforts while the new strategy was being created. While marketing costs were about 1.4% of sales in 2009, we expect to return to investing about 1.75% of sales into marketing for 2010.

For the quarter G&A decreased 50 basis points from the prior year to 6.5% of sales. This decrease was the result of continued cost management and the 2008 menu price increase, and was partially offset by higher bonus accruals. We anticipate no G&A leverage in 2010, as we’re planning to hold our bi-annual, all managers’ conference in the third quarter, which will add about $3 million to G&A, along with higher anticipated stock comps.

Restaurant closures for the year decreased 30 basis points from 2008. Write-offs were higher in 2008 because of the replacement of the service lines in 126 restaurants along with an impairment charge related to the closing of one restaurant.

Our effective tax rate for 2009 was 37.9% and that’s down 60 basis points from the prior year. And the decrease in the 2009 rate was primarily the result of a one time adjustment for prior period meals and entertainment deductions and deductions related to food donated during the year. We anticipate our tax rate for 2010 will be about 38.5%.

We opened 45 new restaurants in the quarter and 121 restaurants for the full year for a total of 956 restaurants at year end. And we continue to expect to open about 120 to 130 restaurants in 2010 with about 25% of those expected to be A Models.

Our development costs have hovered around $900,000 for the past five years, but our focus on more efficient design and build out, combined with taking advantage of our growth while many others have pulled back, has allowed our average new restaurant costs to decline to around $850,000 for those restaurants opened in 2009, further strengthening our new restaurant economics. A Model restaurants opened in 2010 should help us reduce that average investment even further. And assuming our A Model strategy plays out as expected, we would expect 2010 average development costs of around $800,000 and expect total capital expenditures for the year at $115 to $120 million range. And at that rate of CapEx we fully expect to fund our growth from operating cash flow, complete the $100 million buyback we announced in November and still increase our cash balance by the end of the year.

We know the best way to enhance shareholder value is to invest as much as possible in our high return growth, and though growth opportunities and new developments have declined in the last two years from the effects of this economy, strategies such as A Model and introducing the Chipotle brand in Europe will provide additional high return investment opportunities in the future. In the meantime, as we generate more cash than we’re able to reinvest in our growth, we’ll opportunistically return value to shareholders through share buybacks. And through February 10, we’ve repurchased just over $15 million of common stock at an average price of just under $85.

So thanks for your time today. At this time we’d be happy to answer any questions you might have. Operator, please open the lines.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

Thank you. (Operator Instructions) Your first question comes from Jeffrey Omohundro - Wells Fargo Securities, LLC.

Jeffrey Omohundro - Wells Fargo Securities, LLC

My question relates to the change in the dairy strategy. I wonder if you’d elaborate a little bit more about the opportunities you see communicating this move to the customer base. And in light of a generally rising dairy cost environment in 2010, do you contemplate engaging in longer term contracts? Perhaps they could smooth out some volatility this year in the dairy.

Jack Hartung

Hi, Jeff, this is Jack. I’ll comment on any pricing strategy. Then I’ll let Steve talk about the pasture raised and how we might indicate that.

We historically, Jeff, have locked into dairy prices pretty much every year. When the year began we would lock in. We have not locked in this year and that’s primarily because we’re trying to move basically where we source our dairy. We want to move to these farms that would supply our pasture raised and so we’re watching the market very closely, we’re working with these local farms and these local co-ops and we think that we will be able to at some point in the future be able to lock in to some kind of pricing agreement. But as of right now, we’re really paying a spot rate and we’ll continue to do that until we feel like we’ve solidified the entire supply of dairy from pasture raised.

M. Steven Ells

Yes, and Jeff, the pasture raised dairy we believe is better in a number of ways. We believe that pasture raised dairy taste better. We believe that it’s better for the animal. We believe that it’s a way of farming that is more in line with our broader Food With Integrity vision. The way we communicate Food With Integrity, I mean we’re going to see more of that in our marketing starting in the second quarter. You know there isn’t a contemplated marketing message specifically directed at dairy, but part of the marketing message is that Food With Integrity, we think, makes for better tasting food. And we’ve been improving the quality of our raw ingredients over the years. So while one might not taste the difference when, for instance, we go from 30% organic beans to 40% organic beans, one does taste the difference over the years when you’re systematically improving the quality of all of the ingredients.

And so while it’s typical in fast food that the quality has degradated as people try to find cheaper and cheaper ingredients, we at Chipotle are doing something completely different. We’re actually improving the quality year after year in this systematic way. So our message that by investing in these high quality ingredients will make for better tasting food and more sustainably raised food, I think is the key point here.

Operator

Your next question comes from Jason West - Deutsche Bank Securities.

Jason West - Deutsche Bank Securities

I wonder if you guys could talk a little bit more about the marketing plans. You know what is the new message going to look like? And I did miss the first couple minutes of the call, so you may have covered this. I apologize. And you know what’s typically the kind of return you’d get on increasing your marketing budget? It looks like you know about 30 basis point increase in 2010. Would you expect to see a material comp lift out of that?

Montgomery F. Moran

Sure. Well, I won’t go into too much detail because it will be repetitive for most of the listeners, but the marketing that you’re going to see coming out in the second quarter is focused on Food With Integrity and why Food With Integrity is important and that we think it makes for better tasting food. We also think it’s an important story about sustainability. And we think it creates a tighter bond, a more genuine bond with our customers. Because we care deeply about we eat and I’ll let Jack talk about the returns.

Jack Hartung

Yes, Jason, you know we expect when we invest that we’ll always get a return. And that’s when we invest in a new restaurant, when we invest in Food With Integrity, and when we invest in marketing. Now it doesn’t mean we would expect to invest in marketing and then expect on Day One or Month One to see that return, but if we’re effective with our marketing strategy and we feel like we’re communicating and connecting with our customers in a way that they will understand Food With Integrity, we would expect that we would see an increase in our transactions, an increase in existing customers that don’t really know or understand Food With Integrity to come more often. So we would expect that over time we would see higher sales and we would get a return. We always expect to get a return. But we think about it strategically and so it won’t necessarily happen Day One, but we look for a return, sure.

Operator

Your next question comes from Sharon Zackfia - William Blair & Company.

Sharon Zackfia - William Blair & Company

I think there was a comment in the press release where Monty indicated that he was optimistic that margins can be largely sustained in 2010 and I’m just wondering is that on a flat comp as in your guidance? And then separately, how do you feel about labor? You know you obviously saw a lot of leverage this year. I mean do you think you’ll be able to maintain this? Do you expect some inflationary elements there? Can you kind of walk us through that?

Montgomery F. Moran

Yes, Sharon, we do think that when we say that the margins are largely sustainable, there’s not anything in the margins that’s kind of a one trick pony where we were able to capture it in 2009 and repeat it now. There are a few things to keep in mind. Like marketing for example, you know we spent 1.4%. We’ll spend a little more and so that will nick us a little bit. And if we don’t get a comp and we don’t raise prices, we’ll have wage inflation that will creep in as well. But we have pricing power so to the extent that things like inflation creep in, either on the food cost line or in labor, we think that when we decide it makes sense and when we decide that customer confidence is such that we can raise prices just to keep up with the competitors, just to keep up with inflation, that we can do those types of things and hold onto these types of margins.

And in the case with marketing you know similar to what I said before, we expect that as we invest in marketing that we’ll get a return and eventually we’ll get a comp there. So we think that largely these margins, we can sustain them. Now it doesn’t mean we’ll sustain them each and every quarter. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll sustain it for the full year of 2010. But strategically, these margins are things that our business model would allow us to hold onto.

Operator

Your next question comes from David Tarantino - Robert W. Baird & Co., Inc.

David Tarantino - Robert W. Baird & Co., Inc.

A question, Jack, just to clarify on the comps for Q4, could you break out the traffic and mix components for the quarter?

Jack Hartung

Yes. You know overall, David, we had about 2.4% menu pricing so we had a 2% comp and we also lost about 1% or so on average check. So we didn’t get the full 2.4% in the average check so transactions actually did turn slightly sub to positive during the quarter.

David Tarantino - Robert W. Baird & Co., Inc.

And the comment you made on quarter to date, are you running slightly positive traffic including the negative impact from weather?

Jack Hartung

No. My comments, David, were in January we ran slightly positive transactions and we hit the severe snow storms in February and so it’s not possible for us to tell what the sustaining underlying trend would be. We have to let the weather clear and then see what happens. But, you know, we’re encouraged by the fact that traffic turned positive in the fourth quarter and continued to see slightly positive transactions in January. And we fully expect when the weather clears that we hopefully will see a decent trend return in February.

David Tarantino - Robert W. Baird & Co., Inc.

On the mix, if I recall correctly you’re cycling the initial downturn in the mix that you had last year. Would you expect mix to be negative in 2010 or neutral once you cycle the impact that you’ve seen?

Jack Hartung

I would expect it to be neutral, David. We think the mix was very, very slight. The mix caused us just in a couple areas, check size, drink size, and kind of other caused us to lose about 1% of the pricing. And so we think it was mainly driven by pricing so as of right now and from what we’ve seen so far as we’ve looked into January, I wouldn’t see any net effect from the mix at all. I would see it being neutral.

Operator

Your next question comes from John Glass - Morgan Stanley.

John Glass - Morgan Stanley

Can you either remind me or clarify what you expect the AUVs again are going to be on the Model As or the A Models and maybe what you’ve experienced? And more broadly I’m just trying to understand the relationship you think is going to occur between AUV growth and comp growth this year if 25% of your openings are in these new Tier 2, which may have lower volumes but higher returns. And additionally you still are opening in new markets. Will that put additional pressure on AUVs versus prior years? Can you maybe talk to what that differential between company v growth might be in 2010?

Jack Hartung

Yes, John, we don’t expect that we’ll see and that you’ll see any change in our new opening trends at all. We’ve been opening for years now at about this $1.350 million, $1.4 million. That’s been made up of a composite of about three-fourths or so of our openings or two-thirds of our openings in the proven markets and one third in the new and developing. We don’t expect that mix to change meaningfully during the year. All of the A Models are going to be in the proven markets and so we expect them to be at about the same level as they have been in the past. So we don’t think there’ll be any degradation at all. If it plays out that way, then we should see an increase in returns this year because as we see at those same levels our investment costs decline, our operating costs decline, our returns actually should increase this year.

Now in terms of what we saw in the first two, I mean it’s only two but Monty I don’t know if you want to comment about the first couple that opened up.

Montgomery F. Moran

Yes, I mean so far for the two A Models that are actually open and operating we were pleased that the development costs were well below $700,000. And the volumes at these locations are at or even slightly above our average new store opening volumes. So you know again it’s in the early days still and much could happen, but so far we’re very pleased because the openings have held up very, very nicely and especially considering that these are deals we would have passed on it’s delightful to see that they’re going so well.

John Glass - Morgan Stanley

And I just want to clarify, these new Model As you expect to open at the higher, the $1.35 million not the $1.1 in the newer markets?

M. Steven Ells

That’s right, John. I mean we expect when we talk about our 2010 openings at this time next year that we fully expect to overall for the portfolio to still be in the $1.350 million, $1.4 million and the A Models we expect to be in that same kind of range. And the first two so far, so good. And you know even beyond that in the grand opening phase where we first opened up and lots of new customers came in, our sales for a few days there were way, way, way, way, way above that, which tells us the A Model as expected does not in any way restrict volume.

Operator

Your next question comes from Jake Bartlett for Matthew Difrisco - Oppenheimer & Co.

Jake Bartlett for Matthew Difrisco - Oppenheimer & Co.

I had a quick question on development and on pre-opening first. It looks like pre-opening was lower in the fourth quarter. Is that a level, I calculated about $700,000 down from $900,000 last year. Is that a trend that should continue or how should we model that?

Jack Hartung

Well, you know, it is down quite a bit, Matt, and I think it averages about $67,000 to $69,000 per opening this year. Last year I think it was more in the $85,000 range. Most of that, about two-thirds of that or so is rent and 90% of the rent is straight line, non-cash pre-opening rent. So it’s an accounting calculation that we make and we charge that to pre-opening but it doesn’t cost us anything. So that will vary, depending on where we’re opening. So as we open up more in areas like New York City and Boston and Philadelphia, generally the pre-opening costs are going to increase. You know this year it just happened the mix of what we opened up didn’t have significant pre-opening rent, so we think going forward that we think that that will probably stay hopefully closer to that lower level.

But keep in mind, our cash pre-opening costs are generally about $25,000 to $30,000. That’s pre-opening costs like marketing, its training, its training involved into labor that we pay for as well as the food that we cook and we’ll give away for free just as part of a training and part of a marketing approach. That generally stays constant in the $25,000 to $30,000 range. When you see it fluctuate from $67,000 to $69,000 up to $85,000 and back and forth, all of that is due to this pre-opening, non-cash rent calculation.

Matthew Difrisco - Oppenheimer & Co.

And then looking at the labor line and the switch you made from using team leaders versus area managers, can you quantify the benefit that that’s giving you on the cost line?

Montgomery F. Moran

To quantify exactly what team leaders are doing for us versus area managers?

Matthew Difrisco - Oppenheimer & Co.

Yes. I’m just trying to figure out exactly where the cost savings, how much that saves you in terms of expenses, your labor expense.

Montgomery F. Moran

See I guess I don’t know exactly how to quantify it. I can tell you that, you know, area managers some, like if you look at six years ago or so they only managed five stores, 5.4 stores each. And you know as these restaurateurs are leveraged and as we use the restaurateurs to mentor a whole bunch of additional restaurants, our team leaders can oversee a great deal of extra stores. So now we’re at almost 13 restaurants per area manager/team leader. You know right now there are still area managers and there are team leaders. But as a class, they’re managing 13 stores each, so obviously there’s a G&A benefit. I’m not sure exactly if we can quantify it. Jack, do you know?

Jack Hartung

No. I mean I think what you’ve got to look at, Matt, is everything we do is to run the business in a very disciplined way. You’ve seen us improve our G&A as a percent of revenue every single year since we went public, even before we went public. I would say that this contributes to that type of disciplined way of running the business. But if you think about this only from a cost standpoint, that’s really way too narrow. The biggest benefit we get by moving towards team leaders is team leaders develop people, they develop restaurateurs. Those restaurants run better and so if we didn’t save a dime, we would do it. We would hire team leaders and we would reward them because they are better at developing restaurateurs. So that’s frankly the bigger benefit, much bigger than the cost savings.

Matthew Difrisco - Oppenheimer & Co.

And then last question about the marketing expense, so you’re going to add some overall expense for the full year next year, but how about the quarterly trend? Is it going to be much more in the second quarter when you launch the program and is it going to stay at kind of a constant level? How should we model the kind of quarterly fluctuations in marketing as a percentage of revenue?

M. Steven Ells

Yes, Matt, that’s hard to predict. I think it’s reasonable to expect that it’ll ramp up in the second quarter when we launch, stay up in the third quarter and probably stay up in the fourth quarter. But we are being very flexible, remaining very flexible in terms of what we commit to and how much we will invest and how many markets and the like. So we want to leave ourselves room to move that up and down, you know, as the year unfolds and as we figure out what we love and what we want to tweak. And so all I can tell you at this point, we expect it to be overall for the year in the 1.75% range. It should ramp up in the second quarter for sure, but other than that I’d rather not say what we think it might be quarter-to-quarter.

Matthew Difrisco - Oppenheimer & Co.

And then to clarify for this quarter and the fourth quarter, was it about 1.3% of sales?

M. Steven Ells

About 1.2% in the fourth quarter. But remember that was up from the prior year. We were under 1%. So it actually was higher than the prior year but less than what we spent overall for the year.

Operator

Your next question comes from Greg Ruedy - Stephens, Inc.

Greg Ruedy - Stephens, Inc.

I was wondering if you’d been able to slice the occupancy rates at retail centers that will have the A Model versus kind of your existing boxes, meaning are there more dark spaces where you’re going in with the A Model and what’s the opportunity to negotiate landlords to invest in those A Model centers?

Montgomery F. Moran

Well, you know, there are certainly a lot more dark spaces around maybe than before, but we’re still looking for very high quality real estate with even these Tier 2 locations. So you know our real estate strategy hasn’t changed a great deal with regard to how we look at these sites. We’re looking for very high quality sites as we always have, so we have found of course we’re able to negotiate better lease rates and have better occupancy costs at the A Model locations. And frankly that’s what makes them more attractive than they otherwise would be. With regard to what we call our sort of normal locations, they’re not A Model locations. The competition for those locations, especially given that they’re so few new developments coming out of the ground, has remained very sturdy, so that we actually haven’t seen occupancy costs in those locations come down much at all.

But yes, these Tier 2 locations that we’re targeting for A Models, you know typically we’re looking for smaller sites, you know a little bit smaller in terms of square footage and given some of our new efficiencies that Steve mentioned in the kitchen and the dining room and the way we design and build these restaurants, we’re very comfortable building them on smaller sites and in fact find that’s a really great way to run our restaurants. So that takes something out of the occupancy costs and also something out of the development costs that allows us to run these with superior returns.

Operator

Your next question comes from Joseph Buckley - BofA Merrill Lynch.

Joseph Buckley - BofA Merrill Lynch

A question again on the margins, Jack, you mentioned nothing hitting the margins that was not sustainable in 2009, but the price increase was pretty large. Are you looking at lower food costs in 2010 that kind of give you the confidence that the margins can be sustained without pricing?

Jack Hartung

Well, you know, Joe, when we talk about largely sustainable we’re talking at more of a strategic level. First of all I just want to clarify that. So again it’s not that they will for sure sustain and they may not sustain quarter-to-quarter. But yes, to the extent that food inflation creeps in we have pricing power. We have as much if not more pricing power than our competitors. And in fact John Glass helped us prove that. We always felt that and we have been saying that, but he did a report a few months ago and compared our pricing to competitors and saw that there was pricing power in our restaurants. And so we feel like to the extent that food inflation does creep in, and by the way right now the outlook looks pretty tame, it looks like inflation will be relatively modest if there’s much inflation at all. But when it creeps in we think we’ve got as much if not more ability to raise prices. And so that makes it sustainable.

Now if we felt like we had no pricing power and if we felt like inflation was going to creep in and we just had to hold the line, we wouldn’t be able to sit here and tell you that we had largely sustainable margins. That’s how we think about it, Joe.

Joseph Buckley - BofA Merrill Lynch

My question is actually the other way. Are food costs running down year-over-year as you enter 2010?

Jack Hartung

Well, you know, we do see a number of things that are down but we see some things that are up. Like avocados looks like we’ll get a break this year because last year was the third year after California had a freeze, and believe it or not we had three years worth of supply pressure and pricing pressures in avocados. So barring any problems with weather or pests or something like that, it looks like avocados we might get a break on. You know the meats look pretty good right now, but I tell you those industries want to raise prices to the extent that there’s any demand that shows up in the economy, there will probably be inflation there. Cheese is a little bit more expensive but things like rice and soy and some of our produce is a little bit lower. So when we look at it all, Joe, it looks like it washes out to relatively flattish.

Yes, maybe there is an opportunity to tip down a little bit here or there, but then we also want to invest in food integrity. We want to move towards pasture raised. We want to increase the [inaudible] barbacoa. We want to increase our local programs. So there’s always things we’re going to do to strategically invest as well. So overall we look at relatively tame investment. We look at we’ve got pricing power and so we think we can sustain those margins. I wouldn’t bet that the food cost is going to go down further without a price increase. I wouldn’t have bet on a margin increase, if that’s what you’re saying.

Joseph Buckley - BofA Merrill Lynch

You mentioned a loyalty program. Is that part of the new marketing effort and could you elaborate a little bit on what that might look like?

Montgomery F. Moran

We’re not ready to talk about the specifics of the loyalty program yet. It is part of the new overall marketing strategy. And I think a good way to think about this loyalty program is that it will leverage our customers in that we will engage them in a way that they will learn more about the details of Food With Integrity and be more inclined to share those details with other people, to help spread the [inaudible]. That’s all part of the loyalty program. It’s not a simple, you know, buy 10, get the 11th free kind of a thing. It’s a much more engaging program that has different levels of participation based on the strength of the customer and how often they use it and things like this. So we’re not really ready. All the details have not been flushed out yet, but that’s something that’s in the works right now. It’s very exciting.

Operator

Your next question comes from [Bart Glen] – D. A. Davidson.

[Bart Glen] – D. A. Davidson

I had a follow up to Joe’s question regarding food costs and with [inaudible] moderate inflation, should we be viewing Q4 as the baseline or should we think about that as kind of where food costs came in for the entire year?

Jack Hartung

Right now I would look at maybe Q4 with, we might bump up a little bit. There is something that might bump up a little bit. I don’t think we’ll, based on our outlook, I don’t think we’ll bounce up as high as the overall for the year. The overall for the year was like 30.7. So I hope we’ll be closer to the 30.1 that we were for the fourth quarter.

Operator

Your next question comes from Robert Derrington - Morgan, Keegan & Company, Inc.

Robert Derrington - Morgan, Keegan & Company, Inc.

Steven, it’s always seemed like a terrific opportunity for your brand to try and share the message of your Food With Integrity but one that a lot of consumers didn’t always appreciate. You know as you’ve tested the marketing around your business, were you able to bring in more non-users or were you able to increase the frequency of your existing users?

M. Steven Ells

Well, I don’t know that we broke it down like that. But I can say that this new marketing campaign will talk more about Food With Integrity in a way that we haven’t done before. And sort of some anecdotal stuff that we’ve seen lately, especially after the Oprah show, we’ve been getting lots of comments both in store and on the website that this idea of Food With Integrity is very important to people. And we have seen a lot of people who have not eaten at Chipotle before. So I think it’s going to go to both. I think it’s going to help bring in new people and I think it’s going to strengthen the bond with existing customers who didn’t necessarily know that Food With Integrity was part of the Chipotle program.

Robert Derrington - Morgan, Keegan & Company, Inc.

Well, it certainly seems like a huge opportunity for your brand. And if in fact you can convince more folks of the quality of what you serve.

M. Steven Ells

We absolutely agree and we want to be very careful that we deliver this message in a way that’s relevant to folks.

Robert Derrington - Morgan, Keegan & Company, Inc.

Hey, Jack, on the restricted stock expense, can you give us some sort of color on where it shook out for 2009 and the direction of 2010?

Jack Hartung

Yes. For 2009 it was right around $15 million and I don’t know how much it’s going to go up because our comp committee is yet to set that. They’ll be meeting in the coming weeks to go ahead and set that. But you know just looking at a similar kind of grant with a much higher stock price and even if the grant is reduced, because the cost of the grant from an accounting standpoint is higher, you’re adding in a layer of grant this year. The grant we’re taking off from 2007 is a very small piece that you’re taking off and so it’s going to be higher for sure. I hesitate to say a specific number. What I can tell you, though, is we did take into account what it could be and that along with the $3 million cost of our conference in the third quarter and we still think that we can hold our G&A as a percent of sales flat next year.

Operator

Your next question comes from Steve West - Stifel Nicolaus & Company, Inc.

Steve West - Stifel Nicolaus & Company, Inc.

As you think about London opening in May and the second quarter, can you talk about some lessons learned from the Toronto store and how those maybe affect your direction and how you’ll open London and then maybe Paris and follow on stores? And do you foresee any kind of earnings impact and material impact to the second quarter as a result of that?

Montgomery F. Moran

Well, you know, I think the lessons go well beyond Toronto. I think the approach that we’re using is we’re going to open up London and Europe with the lessons that we’ve learned over the last 17 years. And so I think what’s really exciting is that we’re going in with our new trade dress, our improved trade dress; we’re going in with our new philosophy about smaller, super efficient kitchens; we’re going in with the philosophy that we’re going to be using sustainable building materials and low energy consumption appliances. We’re going to go in with a team that comes out of the restaurateur program. These are high energy, empowered folks who came up through the system and they are going to be hiring crews who will be the future leaders of our European expansion.

So everything that we’ve learned from the last 17 years, we’re going to open up a really good Chipotle. Additionally, there is great availability of sustainably raised raw ingredients. And we have been working for the last year or so finding great growers of really, really top notch food. So I would say you’re going to get a top notch experience from the very beginning and we’re really excited to see these stores open in Europe.

Jack Hartung

And, Steve, just on the impact, you won’t see any impact. We’re not adding infrastructure. We didn’t add it in Canada. We’re not going to add it in London. The idea of putting an empowered restaurateur type person into open up the first restaurant and then start hiring future leaders by hiring great crew, you don’t need to hire these layers and layers of people to oversee that. And so it won’t be the typical, international venture into international where you’re bleeding money for a long time because you’ve got this infrastructure and you’ve got to grow rapidly to cover that infrastructure. We’re really adding virtually no infrastructure and it has worked exceptionally well in Canada, to the point where, within the first few months, we’re actually net profitable up in Canada.

Steve West - Stifel Nicolaus & Company, Inc.

As you start to roll out the new menu boards with the children’s menu and some of the other things going on there and you’ve seen kind of maybe an incremental impact to the test markets, is that maybe incremental impact if you were to see that for the national roll out, is that in your flat guidance? Or would there maybe be some upside to that number if you see the same results?

Montgomery F. Moran

Well, at this point the kid’s menu, it really isn’t part of our guidance in the sense that we haven’t seen a measurable increase in comp sales from our kids menu. You know sort of anecdotally we’ve noticed that in some of the restaurants where we sell the most kids’ meals do have a slightly better comp than those restaurants that sell fewer kids meals. And also just sort of on the comments we get from our customers about the ease of use and they’re likely to come to our restaurants more. We’re very bullish that it’s going to be a positive for us but we’ve been running this test for a little while and there is not an obvious comp benefit. So we have not baked that into our guidance but acceptance so far we’ve got a number of markets that have already been serving the kids meal for awhile.

Operator

Your next question comes from Tom Forte - Telsey Advisory Group.

Tom Forte - Telsey Advisory Group

I had two questions. One was can you talk about, this is also on some menu innovations you’re testing, where you stand today with soup as far as the potential to roll that out on a broader basis? How the breakfast test is going in Dulles? And then also, can you explain, if you go to 100% barbacoa naturally raised, what does that mean for your total beef percent that’s naturally raised at the end of 2010? And when you increase the Food With Integrity on the milk and cheese related products, should we anticipate that you’ll also increase prices as you have with the naturally raised beef, chicken and pork?

Montgomery F. Moran

Jack, do you want to tackle the end questions first?

Jack Hartung

Yes. On the barbacoa we’re at about 60% or in the low 60% right now for beef. And that includes both steak and barbacoa. We serve a lot more steak than barbacoa so when we get up to 100% we’ll be probably in the 70 to 75% range of all of our beef will be naturally raised, in that kind of ballpark.

Montgomery F. Moran

And in terms of increasing the price on the pasture raised dairy, you know it’s really too early to tell. I mean right now 30% of all of our dairy is already pasture raised. It’s not segregated like some of our meats. It’s actually co-mingled such that 30% of our national supply is pasture raised. You know the issue really is there are a lot of these farmers who are doing things right out there. There are a lot of farmers who are raising their cows the way we would like to see them raised and providing the milk that we’d like to have. There’s a lot of issues, though, in bringing that milk into our restaurants whether it be distribution or just the difficulty of going to one farm, picking up milk, skipping the next three, going to the next one, picking up milk, skipping the next two, you know, and so it’s difficult right now to say what the pricing on that’s going to be.

Some farmers will tell you that the pricing of them to raise the cows sort of the natural way is actually as or more efficient than the not. And other farmers will tell you there’s a premium associated with that. So it’s really too hard to say at this point, you know, what the pricing to us is going to be of going over to pasture raised dairy. You know when we went over to RBGH free sour cream and cheese, we did not raise prices, even though we felt that that was a very significant milestone for Chipotle. And the reason we didn’t raise prices is that it cost us more but not much more. And really we don’t use Food With Integrity as an excuse to raise prices. We only raise prices with regard to Food With Integrity when it’s necessary to maintain margin.

So if it’s possible, and we’re hopeful that it will be, to go over to 100% pasture raised dairy in a way that’s not significantly more expensive, then we would try to pass on that benefit to our customer and remain accessible. So you have to remember that a key part to our Food With Integrity strategy is to make this great quality food and these great quality raw ingredients accessible to everyone possible. And that’s why you see as Jack mentioned that we have so much pricing power and that John Glass’s report said that we’re I think he said 10 to 15% priced under, I’m sorry, 5 to 10% priced under our competitors according to his study. And that’s even though they don’t have Food With Integrity. So you know we already know we could be priced higher and that we have the power to do that, and we haven’t done it for the very important reason that we want to remain accessible.

So you know long story short, we may raise prices when we go over to 100% pasture raised dairy but it’s too early to tell and we’ll do our very best not to.

M. Steven Ells

And in terms of the soup, you know, if we were to roll that out I think we see that it should be a seasonal item, that during the very cold months it would probably be something that would be attractive to customers. When its warmer we do not sell much. I think it’s pretty obvious why. And on breakfast, again in the very, very early stages, too early to tell. Dulles is just starting to ramp up its sales with the opening of the train there in the new wing of the airport, so we’re going to get a lot more information in the coming months on that.

Operator

And that is all the time we have for questions at this time. I’d like to turn the conference back over to our presenters for any additional closing remarks.

Kate Giha

Thank you very much everyone and we look forward to speaking with you in April.

M. Steven Ells

Thanks everyone.

Montgomery F. Moran

Thank you.

Operator

This concludes today’s presentation. Thank you for your participation.

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Source: Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. Q4 2009 Earnings Call Transcript
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