1) The recent positive sales performance is more a function of a poor 2009 than a great 2010. While “bulls” will point to strong comparable store metrics, I would point out (again) that this metric is flawed for growing concepts. Specifically, if in a typical year, Chipotle (NYSE:CMG) units open at $1.4m and reach maturity at $1.8m in a few years, those units that opened in the depths of the 2009 depression likely have an even bigger ramp-up.
Since over 10% of the store base was opened in this period, it is possible that these stores comped nearly 40%, implying that the mature stores comped 6-7% in the company’s last quarter. While this is still healthy, it is against a traffic decline of 8% the year-ago quarter, so it is basically just getting back to 2008 levels. Overall, sales per restaurant are basically unchanged over three years, despite a large price increase and the maturation of the store base, implying negative traffic over this time period.
2) The company has guided for “low single-digit” comps for 2011. Considering that sales/store have increased at 200 bps over inflation in the last five years, this seems like reasonable guidance. One can only assume that those paying 40x earnings are assuming much better results. I would add that when a restaurant sells basically one product, with little variation or limited-time offers to drive traffic, along with already-crowded locations, then traffic growth should be expected to be low. Finally, given that Chipotle benefited from television exposure (through Oprah and paid advertising) for the first time in 2010, it will be cycling relatively difficult sales comparisons.
3) The product is not cheap, at a $10-12 average check. As such, it will be limited in its appeal. For example, while there are 29 restaurants in Manhattan, there is one restaurant in all other New York City boroughs combined—this is a concept for those with a lot of disposable income. Management has discussed 2,000 units which seems reasonable. In addition, half of the units being opened are new, smaller formats, which indicates a lack of growth opportunities for the larger units.
4) The company currently has among the best profitability in the restaurant industry, at 25% EBITDA restaurant-level margins. Assuming these margins can hold, $1.8m of sales per mature location, and $100 million of corporate overhead, all of which are aggressive, and applying the top-end multiple for a mature concept of 8x EBITDA, the current valuation implies that the 3,500 restaurants are in existence today (i.e., undiscounted), though it would take over a decade to build out that number. This, in my opinion, is staggering. Using an 8% discount rate you can assume 3,000 stores and get to a current value of $120 today.
5) Costs will likely escalate, as the company, despite claiming to buy only organic and naturally-raised ingredients, has been buying cheaper proteins recently due to supply constraints. This, combined with general food inflation, will likely be a headwind in 2011. The recent price increases, after statements that none were forthcoming, shows the challenges being faced.
6) Insiders are selling stock at a record clip.
7) The company has a real problem with illegal workers, one that is likely to be a significant near-term headwind.
8) The cat is out of the bag. If the new Asian concept ("Chop House") is successful, it will be quickly and easily imitated by many competitors.
Disclosure: I am short CMG.