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Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG)

Q3 2011 Earnings Call

October 20, 2011 4:30 pm ET

Executives

John R. Hartung - Chief Finance Officer and Principal Accounting Officer

M. Steven Ells - Founder, Chairman of the Board and Co-Chief Executive Officer

Alex Spong -

Montgomery F. Moran - Co-Chief Executive Officer, Secretary and Director

Analysts

Nicole Miller Regan - Piper Jaffray Companies, Research Division

Bart Glenn - D.A. Davidson & Co., Research Division

Alvin C. Concepcion - Citigroup Inc, Research Division

John S. Glass - Morgan Stanley, Research Division

John W. Ivankoe - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

Jeffrey Andrew Bernstein - Barclays Capital, Research Division

Larry Miller - RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Research Division

Joseph T. Buckley - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

Jason West - Deutsche Bank AG, Research Division

Operator

Good afternoon, and welcome to the Chipotle Mexican Grill Third Quarter 2011 Earnings Conference Call [Operator Instructions] As a reminder, this conference is being recorded. I would now like to introduce Chipotle's Director of Investor Relations, Alex Spong. You may begin your conference.

Alex Spong

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our call today. By now you should have accessed our earnings announcement released this afternoon for the third quarter 2011. It may also be found in 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 as defined in the Securities laws. These forward-looking statements will include projections of the number of restaurants we intend to open, comp restaurant sales increases, food cost trends, margins, effective tax rates and shareholder returns, as well as other statements of our expectations and plans. These statements are based upon 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 these forward-looking statements. We refer you to the risk factors in our annual report on Form 10-K as updated in our subsequent Form 10-Qs for discussion of these risks.

I'd like to remind everyone that we have adopted a self-imposed quiet period restricting communications with investors during that period. That 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 fourth quarter, it will begin on December 1 and continue through our fourth quarter release in February. On the call with us today are Steve Ells, our Chairman and Co-Chief Executive Officer; Monty Moran, Co-Chief Executive Officer; and Jack Hartung, Chief Financial Officer.

With that, I'll now turn the call over to Steve.

M. Steven Ells

Thanks, Alex. I'm very pleased with our financial performance during the third quarter, but even more pleased with our continued strengthening of our food culture and our people culture, as well as the stronger bond that we're creating with our customers as they begin to care more about where their food comes from. All of this gives me great confidence that we're on our way to achieving our vision of changing the way people think about many fast food.

We talked about food culture at Chipotle, instead of talking about new food products. We do this because of our philosophy of constantly working to serve better-tasting, more wholesome food, and that leads us to improve every ingredient we use.

In order to achieve these improvements, we evaluate how our ingredients are raised or grown, improve our recipes and cooking techniques, and improve our kitchen equipment, all with the objective of serving better-tasting food made from sustainably raised ingredients.

Though we don't have time to talk about all the food improvements that we're currently pursuing, I do want to highlight 2 changes that happened during the quarter. First, we've made some changes to our green tomatillo salsa that we think may get even better tasting than before. We've increased the percentage of roasted tomatillo we use in the salsa and are roasting the tomatillos longer in order to mellow the tangy flavor of the raw tomatillo and balance the spiciness of the salsa and improve the consistency. We're using larger vegetable cuts so that the new version of the green salsa is thicker and chunkier than it was before. These changes have made this salsa illustrate how we are always looking at how we can change the food we served to make it better.

The second food-related improvement I want to highlight is our rollout of brown rice. We're now serving brown rice in addition to white rice in about a dozen markets around the country, including New York, Denver, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Seattle among others. Like our white rice, the brown rice is seasoned with fresh lime juice and freshly chopped cilantro, but also offers the nutritional benefits of a whole grain, and it has a delicious nutty flavor. Though we've done very little marketing about the brown rice, customers are responding well and are selecting the brown rice nearly 1/3 of the time. We expect to have brown rice in all of our restaurants by the end of the year. Of course, we're also continuing to make progress in our quest to expand the use of naturally raised meat. Already, we expect to use 100 million pounds of meat from animals that are raised responsibly and never given antibiotics or added hormones and hope to move closer to serving all naturally raised meat in the coming months.

I'd also like to tell you about a couple of marketing initiatives that have taken place since the last earnings call. One recent effort that I'm extremely proud of is a short film that we've created called Back to the Start. If you have not had a chance to see this animated film, I encourage you to visit our website and click on the link and take a look. The animation is accompanied by Willie Nelson covering the Coldplay song, The Scientist. And the video illustrates the dilemma farmers have faced in industrial farming and that has displaced more sustainable farming. It has connected with people on an emotional level far beyond what we could have imagined when the project began. The video has already been viewed online more than 1.7 million times on YouTube alone and is now being shown on about 10,000 movie screens nationwide before the feature films, where we expect around 20 million people to see it. The video has provided a wonderful opportunity for people to discover and become more curious about how their food is raised, without being preachy or overcomplicating the message. But don't take my word for it. Really, go see it and decide for yourself.

We also just completed an important event, Cultivate Chicago, which celebrated music, food and family farms. Cultivate Chicago had cooking demonstrations by some of the country’s best-known chefs, featured our artisanal foods, educational demonstrations that showed the difference between industrial farming and more sustainable farming, and performances by a number of great bands. More than 16,000 people attended this first-time event, and media coverage of the event reached a much larger audience, generating nearly 32 million impressions. We believe the event gave us an opportunity to connect with customers in a profound way and provide the opportunity to educate them about many of the things that make Chipotle so unique. We are planning to do the event again next year, and it will most likely be in Denver.

These are 2 great examples of how we want to engage our customers and prospective customers in a meaningful way, allowing them to discover, at their own pace, where their food comes from as opposed to simply advertising as people. We've always believed that if people discover where their food comes from, the more they'll appreciate what we do at Chipotle.

Another way we're trying to engage our customers in a deeper, more meaningful way is with our Farm Team loyalty program, which is now up and running. Unlike most loyalty programs in the restaurant business, Farm Team is not a frequency program. There's no buy-10-get-1-free punch card. Instead the program is designed to reward a member's knowledge about Food With Integrity and the lengths Chipotle goes to in order to improve our food culture. The more they learn and the more they share with what they have learned with other people, be it social media, the more rewards they earn.

While most loyalty programs aim to get as many of their customers into their programs as possible, the Farm Team program is designed to attract a smaller number of very loyal customers who have the potential to be spokespeople for the brand. So far, we've had very -- so far, we have been very selective in extending invitations to prospective Farm Team members. We've deliberately started slowly to be sure the program is working before we ask our managers to invite more customers, but we expect the membership to grow to around 25,000 or so by the end of the year.

We've recently reserved -- we've recently received research regarding the effect of our Unlimited Time Only campaign which ran earlier this past summer, the campaign where we wrapped burritos in gold foil to call attention to the great ingredients we use. The results were encouraging, demonstrating that this marketing connected with people in a meaningful way. Highlights from the campaign include a 19% increase in Chipotle's advertising awareness in a very crowded category. 94% of those who saw the campaign got the message about the better quality ingredients we use. And we also saw significant increases in consumers saying that Chipotle is a brand they love, that they can feel good about eating at Chipotle, and that Chipotle is a leader in the industry. All of this just demonstrates that our efforts to allow people to discover where our food comes from and how it is raised are working. And combined with providing a great dining experience to each customer who visits, this is leading to increasingly informed loyal Chipotle customers.

I also wanted to mention that we recently formed the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, a nonprofit foundation with the objective of supporting people and organizations working to make improvements in the areas of animal welfare, family farming and in educating the next generation of sustainable farmers. The foundation's vision and activities are consistent with our efforts to support sustainable farming, and the first significant effort will be with our upcoming burrito promotion, where we hope to raise $1 million in our restaurants to benefit the foundation and Farm Aid.

Finally, during the quarter, we opened our new ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen in Washington, D.C. The ShopHouse menu includes a bowl of rice or noodles, a choice of meat or tofu, an array of vegetables, curries, sauces and various garnishes. Additionally, we offer a delicious Banh Mi sandwich with freshly baked bread with your choice of meat or tofu. All of this is served in the Chipotle format, where food is cooked to the line and customized to each individual customer. The restaurant has been open for about a month, and I'm very encouraged by the quality and taste of the food, service and the overall customer experience. And the customers, so far, just love it. Some customers have commented that it's a bit too spicy, which is exactly what I heard when I opened the very first Chipotle 18 years ago. What I love is that these customers tell me that it might be too spicy, while they devour every bite of their meal.

I'm convinced that Chipotle's success is not necessarily because we serve tacos and burritos, but rather because of our commitment to making great tasting food with sustainably raised ingredients, using classical cooking techniques and in an open kitchen, and served in an interactive, customizable and very efficient way. ShopHouse provides an opportunity for us to test this idea and see how our model works with another cuisine. We have no specific plans for additional ShopHouse restaurants at this time. We'll continue to perfect this restaurant, develop a strong team and assess its unit economics.

Also during the quarter, we opened our second restaurant in London in early September on Baker Street. Also, construction continues on our first restaurant in Paris, which is slated to open late in the fourth quarter. Our aim in Europe right now is to establish the Chipotle brand, develop relationships with key suppliers, and build a people culture that will provide us with the leadership that we'll need to grow over the coming years.

We'll continue to carefully nurture these future growth opportunities, but our primary focus and excitement remains on Chipotle's significant remaining domestic growth potential.

I'll now turn the call over to Monty.

Montgomery F. Moran

Thanks, Steve. We've been delighted to see that our continued focus has led to another strong quarter of growth for Chipotle. Our performance is the result of our relentless focus on building a culture that allows us to develop restaurant management teams that provide an exceptional dining expense. They do this by empowering teams of top-performing crew members to deliver very high standards in terms of delicious food, great customer service and protecting Chipotle's unique economic model.

Our restaurateurs continue to lead the way in developing these excellent restaurant level teams. And our entire team of key [ph] leaders is totally focused on developing as many of these elite managers as possible. Every restaurateur has demonstrated ability to select excellent people and to develop them into our future leaders. As we continue to make progress, identifying restaurateurs and bringing them into the program, where each of these great [ph] leaders continues to grow.

As of now, we have about 253 restaurateurs, including 23 former restaurateurs who were promoted to apprentice team lead, team leader or team director positions. But our restaurateurs have a much greater reach than these numbers would suggest. More than half of our restaurateurs now oversee more than one restaurant, and nearly 60% of them now directly benefit -- nearly 60% of all of our restaurants now directly benefit from the leadership of our restaurateurs. As we continue to develop restaurateurs, we're seeing the benefits to our entire people culture. You will recall that restaurateurs are paid a $10,000 development bonus for each crew member that they develop into a manager. In the first 9 months of this year, we have paid more in people development bonuses than in any entire year before, more than $1 million so far.

While our people development is as strong as ever, we still have room to improve the quality of our restaurant operations and, particularly, our throughput. Frankly, we feel like we have not emphasized enough the importance of this measure during the last 2 years as the recession caused our transactions to soften. As our transactions have picked up again, our throughput has increased, but not as much as we would like.

This last year, we have created some great tools to help with proper deployment and scheduling, both of which are essential to allowing us to have all hands on deck during the peak lunch and dinner hours. These tools have helped. But what we have recently realized is that we've not done enough to teach our restaurant teams the basic techniques of proper throughput that we taught so well back in 2006 and 2007. In our restaurants, we realized that we needed to remaster these basic techniques. In other words, while we have done a great job of making sure that we have enough people ready to serve customers during our peak hours, we now need to make sure that these people has the techniques and skills necessary to really create speedy service.

Again, that is not to say that we don't have good throughput already. It's just that it's not nearly what it could be given the fact that our restaurants are the busiest that they've ever been. Today, with higher average restaurant volumes, more top performers among the ranks of our managers and crews than ever before and better tools, such as the prep and deployment tool and the menu link scheduling tool, we should be doing even better. So for the remainder of 2011 and 2012, we will be actively focusing on throughput again, recognizing the huge impact that this effort can have on our customer service and the overall experience that we provide.

We are also redirecting the efforts of our field leaders to help further improve upon our people-development efforts. To this end, we held a field leadership conference in Las Vegas during the third quarter. The goal of this conference was to teach our field leaders better techniques to help them quickly develop top performers into restaurateurs. As evidenced by the strong growth of our restaurateur program, these field leaders have done a good job developing the teams already. But we believe that a shift in strategy would allow them to do even better.

Historically, our field leaders have spent most of their time in their restaurants, directing their store managers and crews to correct issues that they see during their visits. Our new strategy involves using those same issues to diagnose what the underlying problems are, so that our leaders can create lasting change in their restaurants. In other words, they're working to make sure that our field leaders show our restaurant managers how to create high-performing teams that are empowered to achieve high standards without the need for constant feedback from their leaders. To do this, our leaders need to clearly understand what a restaurateur is and create a vision by which each of their managers can attain this elite position. They need to be able to clearly articulate the vision and then empower their teams to achieve it. And while it's difficult to work to create the special Chipotle culture, we are more encouraged than ever as many of our recent restaurateurs have demonstrated the ability to reach this level very quickly once they have a clear vision of what they need to do to get there.

And this group of leaders knows that when the achieve their goal, there is a huge opportunity that awaits them. Just what is that opportunity? Well, in 2012, we plan to open between 155 to 165 new restaurants, more than we've ever opened before in a single year. With our new restaurant-opening volumes higher than ever, we will need more top-performing managers and crews to be sure that we are providing the kind of dining expense that our customers expect of us as we accelerate the pace of our growth.

Our opening plans are going to include about 30% A Model locations, which continue to keep pace with our traditional openings in terms of sales, but with a lower cost structure. Our continued use of this strategy will allow us to open restaurants with confidence in additional trade areas, while strengthening our unit economic model. As Steve mentioned, our growth in the coming year will continue to be driven by expansion of Chipotle in the United States with about 75% of our 2012 openings planned for proven markets and the remaining 25% planned for new or developing markets, including Nashville, Albuquerque and Vancouver, among others.

We believe that focus and discipline are the core of Chipotle's success and that our continued focus on those things that drive our business will allow us to provide strong returns for our shareholders and position us well for future growth and continued success.

I'll now turn the call over to Jack.

John R. Hartung

Thanks, Monty. We're very pleased with our financial results in the third quarter as our ongoing focus on building a strong food culture, a special people culture and a unique and strong unit economic model continue to lead to better financial results. By creating an extraordinary dining experience and serving delicious food made from the finest ingredients available in an affordable format, we continue to attract new customers and build stronger loyalty with our existing customers.

And as people become more curious about where their food comes from, they appreciate Chipotle even more and they're changing the way they think about and eat fast food. Despite some uncertainty among consumers about the macroeconomic environment, we're pleased to report our fifth consecutive quarter of double-digit comps since the economy began to recover last year, with a comp of 11.3% in the quarter.

Overall sales for the quarter increased 24.1% to $591.9 million, driven by new restaurant openings and the 11.3% comp. The quarter comp was primarily driven by increased customer visits, while the menu price increase added about 4.6%. As a reminder, about 3.5% of the increase is from the menu price increase, which took effect during the quarter -- during the third quarter, while about 1.1% is due to the increase taken in the first quarter on the West Coast.

Comps were higher than the 10% we saw in the second quarter despite a tougher comparison against an 11.4% comp in the third quarter of last year as the menu price increase more than offset the tougher comparison. While we're very pleased with another double-digit comp in the quarter, we continue to see the lowest comp of the day during our peak hours, which is an indication that we have an opportunity to serve even more customers during peak hours with better throughput. We know we can do a better job of scheduling and deploying our teams more efficiently, completing the prep on time and always have a dedicated expo or linebacker during peak hours, which will lead to better throughput and a better experience for our customers.

As we had hoped, we did not see any noticeable resistance to the menu price increase, either in the average check or in the transaction trends. Our customers have usually responded well when we raise prices. And they believe their dining experience at Chipotle is a great value. But we always want to remain accessible to our customers, and so we worked very hard to earn pricing power with our customers, and we will always be patient and thoughtful whenever we decide to raise prices.

For the year, sales increased 23.6% to $1.67 billion driven again by new restaurant openings and a comp increase of 11.2%. Year-to-date, menu price increases added about 2.3% to the comp. We're also seeing our sales trends in dollar terms continue to hold up into October, but keep in mind, the comparison of the fourth quarter is tougher as we go against a 12.6% comp from last year, and we'll only pick up an incremental 20 basis points remaining from the third quarter price increase. So we do expect a lower comp in Q4 compared to the third quarter.

Overall, for the full year, we're increasing our sales comp guidance to low double-digit comps from the earlier range of high single to low double digits. As we look to 2012, we expect comps in the low single-digit range as we compare it to double-digit comps for the full year for the first time since before the recession.

We opened 32 restaurants -- new restaurants in the quarter, bringing our year-to-date opening to 83 and total company-wide restaurants to 1,163 at the end of the third quarter, which includes ShopHouse, 2 restaurants in London and 2 in Toronto. We expect to end the year with total new restaurant openings at or above the high end of 135 to 145 opening range with A Models representing about 30% of that total. We're also pleased to announce that for 2012, we expect to increase our new restaurant openings to a range of about 155 to 165 new restaurants.

Our new restaurant continue to perform very well, opening with sales of the top of or above our communicated range of $1.4 million to $1.5 million. Restaurants opened at least 12 months now have an average restaurant sales of $1,973,000, which is the highest level ever. Our unit economic potential for both new restaurants and existing restaurants is at the strongest ever despite the current challenging effects of rising food inflation.

Diluted earnings per share for the quarter was $1.90, an increase of 25%. We were able to grow EPS at a slightly faster rate than sales despite much higher food costs as we delivered strong sales leverage in every other line item except for food. Despite 250 basis points of higher food cost, operating margin was up 30 basis points, while restaurant level margins were down just 100 basis points compared to last year. Year-to-date, diluted EPS was $4.96, an increase of 18.7% from last year. Again efficiencies from higher comps allowed us to leverage every line item on the P&L except for food, which on a year-to-date basis was up 230 basis points from last year. Restaurant level margins year-to-date were 25.9%, a decrease of 100 basis points.

Food cost were 33.1% in the quarter, up 250 basis points from last year despite the menu price increase in the quarter. Avocado cost rose even more than expected, though we were pleased we're able to stay supplied with great tasting avocados from California longer than expected. As we mentioned during our second quarter call, California avocados were in short supply this summer resulting in much higher prices and a shorter harvest season than normal. Higher meat cost, primarily chicken and beef, also added to higher food cost driven by higher feed prices. And we've also seen higher prices for our cheese and sour cream. The menu price increase helped offset some of these food inflation, benefiting food cost by about 110 basis points compared to the second quarter and by about 140 basis points compared to last year.

Expect food cost should improve slightly in the fourth quarter as we benefit from lower avocado cost as we source from Chile and Mexico. This benefit will be offset by continued inflation in meats, as well as higher prices for corn, rice and other miscellaneous ingredients. We're hopeful that the net will be a food cost in the fourth quarter in the mid to high 32% range. Without the price increase, our underlying food costs are up about 10% so far this year, much worse than we expected when the year began. As we look to 2012, we expect food inflation to continue, but we hope it will moderate in fall into a more normal range perhaps in the mid-single-digit range. Projected higher corn prices and other grains are expected to put continued upward pressure on meat and dairy cost well into next year.

Labor costs were 23.3% of sales in the quarter, a decrease of 90 basis points from last year. Labor leverage was driven by the menu price increase and higher sales volume. Our top-performing managers and their teams of all high performers continue to result in an efficient labor model, delivering a great dining experience. And year-to-date labor costs are down 70 basis points from last year.

Our fixed cost in the quarter declined 40 basis points from last year and 50 basis points year-to-date due to higher average restaurant sales. Other operating costs were 10.7% for the quarter, a decline of 20 basis points, and year-to-date, our other operating costs, were 10.9%, down 10 basis points from last year. These reductions were primarily driven by lower marketing costs along with better sales leverage. Marketing was 1.1% for the quarter and 1.3% year to date, which were both less compared to last year. We expect marketing to increase in the fourth quarter to around 1.75% as our animated film Back to the Start plays in theaters around the country and as a result of the Cultivate event Steve talked about, which took place earlier this month in Chicago. While overall marketing will be about 1.5% for the full year in 2011, we expect to return to our normal marketing expense of around 1.75% in 2012. With 6.3% in the quarter of 70 basis points lower than last year, and recall that last August, we held our second biennial All Manager Conference, which will also occur in 2012.

The conference cost around $3.5 million in 2010 and will cost an estimated $4.5 million to $5 million next year as we expect around 2,000 managers and support staff to be in attendance. G&A also includes noncash, noneconomic stock comp expense of nearly $11 million in the quarter and nearly $33 million for the year. And this is $4.5 million higher in the quarter and $14.5 million higher for the year compared to last year, all as a result of stock options issued at a much higher stock price, which resulted in a much higher calculated accounting charge.

Our underlying cash G&A adjusted for the benefit of comparing against the conference and adjusting for the higher noncash stock comp is lower as a percentage of sales as a result of our conscious, ongoing efforts to grow our underlying G&A at a slower rate than our sales growth.

Our annual burrito promotion and fundraising will add about $1 million to G&A in the fourth quarter, which will benefit Chipotle Cultivate Foundation and Farm Aid. In 2012, we expect to continue to manage underlying G&A to grow at a slower rate than our sales growth before the impact of a noncash stock comp and before the cost of the All Manager Conference. As a perspective, if similar number of options are granted next year with the strike price equal to the current stock price, the accounting charge for noncash stock comp would grow by similar amounts this year or around $20 million.

For 2012, we expect our effective tax rate to increase from 38.4% this year to 39.2% as a result of the higher [indiscernible] not continuing, and assuming the work opportunity tax credit and the R&D credit, which typically have been renewed each year, are not renewed for 2012. We're now $77 million into our $100 million stock repurchase program through today at an average price per share purchased at about $220. Over the past 3 years, we've purchased a total of $277 million in stock and an overall average share price of $93.

While we continue to generate more cash from operations while investing in the Chipotle business today, we're confident that growth options we're seeing today, including ShopHouse, Chipotle in London, Chipotle in Toronto and soon Paris, will provide an active [ph] value-enhancing growth investments in the future. In the meantime, we'll continue to invest in our high returning domestic restaurant, and we will opportunistically repurchase our stock to enhance shareholder value.

Thanks for your time today. At this time, we'd be happy to answer any questions you may have. Operator, please open the lines.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Your first question will come from Joe Buckley with Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Joseph T. Buckley - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

Can I ask just on the low single-digit comp guidance for 2012, kind of how you're thinking about that in terms of transactions and check, given the price increase you'll start the year with on a year-over-year basis?

John R. Hartung

Joe, with the current price increase that we've already taken, that will roll into next year. And assuming that we continue to see no resistance, we expect to get probably right around 2% from that. And so the low single-digit comp guidance, we'd expect that we'd get a little bit more maybe 1% or 2% more from transactions next year. And keep in mind every year when we do this, Joe, we take a look at next year. And the low single digits is what we will achieve if we don't change the trend line. Of course, we're always trying to do things like -- with improved throughput and with improving the quality of our ingredients, including the taste of our food. We're always hopeful that we'll be able to change that trend line. But going up against the double-digit comp from this year if we're not able to, we would end up in that low single-digit category. And that's how we've done and always done our comp guidance for the next year.

Joseph T. Buckley - BofA Merrill Lynch, Research Division

And then just one more question on the throughput comments, can you talk about some of the bottlenecks you see or some of the opportunities to improve the throughput, what changes you had made? Is it on the production line? Is it something different?

M. Steven Ells

Yes, Joe. I mean for starters, obviously, what we want is a team of all top performers. And you want -- especially during your peak hours of lunch and dinner, you want to have every single person on the line be somebody who's experienced in the position that they're working and able to do it very quickly and efficiently while giving great, great customer service, great eye contact, great communication with the customer. In order to make sure that we have those folks on the line, obviously, we wanted many restaurateurs as possible, and that's our top priority. But what we've been working on last year a lot was to make sure that our scheduling and our deployment were everything that they could be. And in other words, we wanted to make sure that we had -- that we did not use too many hours of labor in the morning or before dinner in preparing all of our ingredients. We wanted to use the right amount of labor then, so we have plenty of hours left to have peak deployment during our busiest times of day, at lunch and dinner. So we worked on that quite a lot, and we've improved in those measures, although there's still a lot of improvement yet to go.

But when you do get all the people you need ready to work during the peak hours, the question is, a, are they absolutely the right people for the right job at the right time? B, are they all deployed on the line and not distracted by anything else like doing prep work that they shouldn't be doing at that time. And that's what we're working on now. Some of the key things in terms of bottlenecks are we've always found that the process of cashing people out has been the slowest part of our line. But the biggest thing you can do to make sure to cash people out quickly at the cash register is to make sure that we have an expo or an expediter, which is the person who stands between the person who rolls the burrito and the person who rings up the customer. And that person takes care of all sorts of miscellaneous things such as putting the food in the bag if it's to go, or making sure that -- to cover the burrito bowl or put it in the basket, get you drinks if you want to drink and so and so forth.

So that person minimizes the distraction on the cashier, so the cashier can focus on ringing out sales and eliminate that bottleneck. Another bottleneck can be -- or another great driving force for great throughput is when you have some terrific at the tortilla press. That's the person who first -- is the first one to welcome customer and speak very clearly to the customer and establish the pace for the customer and make sure that they know exactly what the customer wants and begin to communicate that down the line to the next person. If we have someone great at tortilla, they tend to really push a great speed and a great flow down the line and establish the expectation to the customer that we're able to get them through quickly. So those are 2 key points. But really, every single person on the line is very important. And we know how to generate these great throughput. A final thing that we need to do is always have what we call a linebacker working on the line during peak hours. A linebacker is often a general manager or a service manager and is someone who walks behind all the crew people on the line making sure that each of them had everything they need to do their job. For instance making sure that all the bins of food are full, making sure that the line is wiped down and clean, making sure that they have spoons and other serving utensils that they need without having to bend over to pick them up or turn around and distract their attention from the customer. What we found in looking at our restaurants now is we have these top top-performing crews and terrific managers. But sometimes, we are neglecting some very basic blocking and tackling when it comes to throughput such as having a dedicated expediter at all times during all peak hours plus having a linebacker dedicated during all those times. And if you have just those 2 positions and great people in every position on the line, you're going to achieve some really terrific throughput. And our fastest restaurants are doing that every day right now. We just have to make sure that the rest of them catch up.

Operator

And your next question will come from John Glass of Morgan Stanley.

John S. Glass - Morgan Stanley, Research Division

Just first on food cost. I just want to clarify if, Jack, we see 5% or mid-single digit inflation next year, combined with the pricing you took this year, the food cost ratios sort of stayed flat with this year? Are you able to leverage food cost in that formula? Can you just maybe be a little more precise about food cost ratios as well?

John R. Hartung

Yes, sure. It's still early to know exactly what food cost is going to look like next year, so we're seeing the same things that you guys are. I would think in terms of -- we hope that our food cost will normalize a little bit in the fourth quarter. Avocados were extremely high. They were the highest we've ever paid for avocado in about 5 years or so. But that was not as much sustained inflation-driven as much as it is, it was a light season. And growing avocados is cyclical, and so we would hope that avocados would return to a more normal harvest next year in California. So if you assume that our food cost return to kind of more normalized cost in the fourth quarter, we hope that would be somewhere in that mid-32% range to the high 32% range, and then we think inflation of somewhere in the mid-single digits on top of that. So we don't think that there's anything that we see with what we're buying today that we'll see leverage. We don't see that what we're buying today's going to be less than what we're paying today. So we see, frankly, food cost continue to rise not decline.

John S. Glass - Morgan Stanley, Research Division

So just to be clear, mid-single-digit food cost was sort of a mid-single -- sort of less than mid-single digit price increase at least for the first half of the year kind of equals flattish food costs from the fourth quarter into the first half, at least, of next year. Is that the right way to look at it?

John R. Hartung

No, I would say, John, that if inflation of 5% creeps basically on top of our, let's call it, somewhere in the 32%, mid-32s, the high 32s, when the full 5% is in, that would be, call it, 150 basis points or so. If that happens throughout next year, we might see 150 added basis points by the fourth quarter of next year. And if it happens evenly throughout the year, we'd have a little bit in the first quarter, a little bit in the second quarter, et cetera, et cetera. Now as you know, inflation never happened that linear -- in a linear way that way. It kind of jumps up and then comes back, jumps up and comes back. But I would think of it in terms of a 5% on top of what we’ve seen in the fourth quarter.

John S. Glass - Morgan Stanley, Research Division

And then just to clarify, the tax rate increase, you're assuming this -- if the higher rate -- if the HIRE Act does not get renewed and an R&D credit doesn't, but they normally do get renewed, are you -- I'm confused as to why you would assume that they're not if they normally do.

John R. Hartung

Well, It's all political, John. I mean, if they can at the last minute at the end of the year, if they can get these things approved, then our tax rate would be slightly higher, maybe 20 basis points higher, but we would pick up instead of raising by 80 basis points, it would only rise by 20. And we're just throwing it out there because Washington will need to get their act together. They'll need to approve these things. And if they don't, we wanted everyone to know what the impact on our tax rate would be.

Operator

From Piper Jaffray, we move on to Nicole Miller.

Nicole Miller Regan - Piper Jaffray Companies, Research Division

My question is as you add new things to the menu, for example, the brown rice and make that available, are you able to figure out how much that drives frequency of existing guests and how much you're able to get new guests in the door?

M. Steven Ells

Well, Nicole, I don't think that adding something like brown rice adds a measurable new stream of customers right away. But I think what it does is I think it starts to develop a connection with our existing guests, letting them realize that now there are more options, especially more options on the health side for someone who's concerned about perhaps eating more whole grain, something like this. And so I think that when they decide what they might want for lunch or dinner, this health component, this new flavor component might make them think about coming more often. I also think it shows to our customers that we are concerned about creating a dining experience that's something that's good for them that they can eat frequently. Fast food used to be a treat in this country a few decades ago, and it's become people's everyday eating. But the quality of the food has not changed. It's not necessarily something that's appropriate to eat every day. And we want to make sure that we're including things like whole grains that are part of everybody's sort of daily healthy diet. And so I think over time, it will help drive more customers in and bring people back more often, but it's not something that's measurable right away.

Operator

[Operator Instructions] From Deutsche Bank will go to Jason West.

Jason West - Deutsche Bank AG, Research Division

Just, Jack, why don't you clarify a little bit the comments on the more recent trends. You've talked about the tough compare. Could you say that you guys are still running in the double digits, just slightly below or is it -- the slowdown been a little more significant than that?

John R. Hartung

Yes, it's -- really, we're seeing the -- when we look at trends just from month to month and week to week and adjust for seasonality, they're holding up just as well in October as they did in September and as they did throughout the third quarter. What we are seeing now as we go against these tougher comps from last year, we're seeing a slight downtick, still right around the double digits, but little more than 100 basis points lower. But it's 100% explained by the fact that we're going up against a little bit more than 100 basis point tougher comparison than last year. So no -- I would call it, Jason, no change in dollar trend either up or down, but just a slight adjustment to the comp because of the tougher comparison.

Jason West - Deutsche Bank AG, Research Division

Okay. That's helpful. And then just -- could you guys give us an update on the labor investigation while we got you here, just kind of where we stand. Have they moved that to more of a national overview yet or we're still just looking at the 2 markets? And any thoughts on when we may get some resolution there?

M. Steven Ells

Yes. I mean, obviously, we continue to cooperate with the government officials in their investigation. The scope of the investigation hasn't particularly widened. And we are producing -- have been producing a whole bunch of corporate documents. But we don't have any reason to believe that they're widening the scope of the investigation. And according to our team of attorneys and so forth, they tell us that it's going very well and that they feel good about the investigation. And in terms of when it will wrap up, it's just very hard to say. We don't have any visibility on when it's going to wrap up, but we're hopeful that it will be before too long, and we can put it behind us.

Operator

And next we'll go to Jeffrey Bernstein with Barclays Capital.

Jeffrey Andrew Bernstein - Barclays Capital, Research Division

Just 2 questions, first as a follow-up to that kind of restaurant margin question as we look to next year, kind of, balancing the food cost component of it. But it sounds like you're talking about 2% price at this point and 5 points of mid-single digit inflation. Just wondering is the goal in your mind to protect the restaurant margin that we see in this year in 2012? Or do you think of it more as a balance based on the traffic trends and, therefore, the margins go up margins go down? But I'm just trying to gauge whether or not if you see inflation higher than that whether you would take pricing with the goal being to actually mitigate the pressure and protect the margin?

M. Steven Ells

Yes, Jeff. Long term, we believe that a restaurant margin that we've seen over the last couple of years is certainly sustainable. We think we -- depending on our comp, if we have strong comps, we can expand that margin. We said, in the past, there's nothing about our margin even though it's the highest in the industry right now. As we generate significant comps, we can generate as much leverage, if not more, than other companies out there that are at a much lower margin. And so we think the kind of the record margins we've seen, especially last year before food cost has spiked, we think over time that's sustainable.

Now we're not really interested in trying to protect margins quarter by quarter. We know inflation is volatile. We know it's been up and down this year. We've got things like avocados, and those are things that will happen, and they'll be more cyclical and we'd rather wait and see how those play out before we make menu pricing decisions. One clarification to that food cost question, we don't have plans right now to increase prices next year, but we have pricing power. We know the menu price increase that we took in the summer this year. We did not spend all the pricing power. We went out and looked at each of the markets and looked at what competitors were charging. We had room to increase the prices even more. We thought that was a fair price increases, we thought if would get our margins back to within striking distance of what they were the year before, but we wanted to be thoughtful and remain accessible to our customers. If inflation continues, at some point, we'll be in a position to and we will increase our price to make sure that, longer term, our margins are sustainable.

Jeffrey Andrew Bernstein - Barclays Capital, Research Division

Got it. And just as a follow-up on the kind of comp trend question. Doesn't seem like you're seeing any change in 2-year run rate, and it seems like we've seen that actually 2-year rate improve of over each of the past few quarters. I know you can always tweak your guidance for next year as you move through the year, but it would seem like you just lapped the double-digit comp with the double-digit comp. I'm not sure why if you were to sustain this 2-year run rate that we're seeing right about now, why it would even fall to that low single-digit range unless there's a different way to think about it. But from a 2-year perspective, it would seem sustainable.

John R. Hartung

Yes. Well, the 2 years that you're looking at right now, the first year of that year is comparing against 2009, which we did 2% comp for the year. So you've got -- the first year where we started our comps [indiscernible] was last year. And the comparison got tougher last year, but we -- 2 years ago, we had a 2% comp. Last year, we started our double digits. Now we're double digit not 1/2 a double digit. So I think, Jeff, the challenge is going to be can we do a third year, which is what we're going to be faced with as we get into the middle of the year. The comparisons are a little -- the 2-year comparisons are a little more favorable early in the year when we've got the pricing increase early in the year. But as you get to the back half of the year next year, we're going up against 2 years straight of double-digit comps, so that's where the challenge really is.

Operator

From Citi, we'll hear from Alvin Concepcion.

Alvin C. Concepcion - Citigroup Inc, Research Division

Your store unit guidance calls for an acceleration in openings next year. Just wondering what you're seeing out there in regards to availability of sites and if you're seeing that availability of sites improve?

M. Steven Ells

Yes, we're really not seeing a lot more new developments than we had during the past 2 years. So our ratio of new developments and remodels of existing developments is going to remain about the same. That is to say it's going to remain the same as it's been over the last couple of years where it's been more in that sort of 35% new development 65% renovations. As we've told you before, about 4 and 5 and 6 years ago, that number was flip-flopped and about 2/3 of our stores were coming from new development. So we're really not seeing particularly more new developments. What we are able -- we've got a lot of confidence based on our new store openings and based on our A Model strategy that we can be fairly aggressive, certainly, in all of our proven markets and even take some chances in working on some A Models in our developing markets in order to continue to get more new restaurants. And so that's what we've done for next year, and we're very optimistic that we're going to continue to have terrific openings next year even that at this increased pace of growth.

Alvin C. Concepcion - Citigroup Inc, Research Division

Great, and I think previously, in the past, you've talked about needing something in the range of a mid-single digit, same-store sales with normal inflation to maintain our growth margins. Is there anything different in that dynamic as you're looking at 2012?

John R. Hartung

There's not. I would say we need that mid-single digit just to maintain our margins when you have kind of normal inflation. Now normal inflation, it depends on if food inflation is in the 3% to 4% range, that's kind of normal. If it's in the 6%, 7%, 8%, 9% or 10% range, that's not normal. And just like you're seeing this year, even though we've had very strong comps, even though we've had leverage in every single line item, our leverage, at least at the restaurant margin level, on 11% comp where we can't overcome 250 basis points of higher food cost. And that's effectively a 12% inflation, if you compare it to the third quarter of last year. So it -- largely, in this environment, it largely depends on what food inflation is for the year and in each individual quarter.

Operator

And your next question will come from Bart Glenn with D.A. Davidson.

Bart Glenn - D.A. Davidson & Co., Research Division

I was just curious. My understanding was the West Coast when they received the initial price increase, that was the sort of catch-up with national pricing based on the cost structure. Now would the intention be to still have an additional wave of price increases to catch them up to the rest of the nation?

M. Steven Ells

Haven't decided yet, Bart. One thing by getting them off-cycle, they had a price increase in 2010 around the second quarter, like in May, the May-June time frame. And so by increasing again in March, we did accelerate that a little bit. And so we'll continue to monitor prices out there, monitor transactions, and we haven't made any short-term decisions on whether we're going to raise prices again. But our long-term objective would be to continue to take steps to allow California pricing to catch up because it's very expensive to do business out in California. And for their prices to -- while they're closer to a typical Chipotle market across the country, they're still a little bit behind. They're at least within a few percentage points, so they're at least in the ballpark now.

Operator

We'll hear from Larry Miller. [RBC Capital Markets]

Larry Miller - RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Research Division

I wanted to circle back to the throughput commentary, and I was hoping maybe you could share some metrics. You've done that in the past where you've talked about, I guess, labor efficiency per hour. Maybe that's not the right one but the number of people you can serve per hour and kind of where you're at and where you think you can get to. Or any kind of metrics you could put around that. Then I also had another question, if you'd let me.

M. Steven Ells

Yes, Larry. I guess to be more specific, I mean, right now at our peak hour on Fridays at lunch, we're doing about 110 transactions in an hour. That's this time of year, which, of course, is a slower time of year than the April, May, June, July time where we have even more transactions coming through the door. Our very best year ever was 2007 where that number was 112. So we're 2 transactions off of where we were then during our peak hour. And so one could argue that, that's pretty darn good throughput. But what we also look at when we analyze this is a few things. Number one, we have more transactions now coming through our doors than we had in 2007, higher volumes but, more importantly, more transactions. And we have better restaurant teams. We have a lot more restaurateurs. Well, we have about 240 more restaurateurs. We have much stronger field leadership, and we have much more impressive people joining us in the crew ranks than ever before. So we believe that we have all the ingredients to have much, much better throughput than we've had ever in the past, and we won't be satisfied until we accomplish that.

All of the regional directors -- and we were in a meeting here in Denver just recently where this was a primary point of discussion, and all the regional directors believe solidly as do all of our field leaders that we can get much, much better in throughput because we know how to do it. And it's kind of funny. I mean, we got sort of bogged down a little bit, I think, in late 2008 and 2009. We're just kind of watching the recession and dealing with trying to do everything we could to keep transactions solid and coming in.

But now in 2010, we focused more technically on throughput in terms of getting tools in place that will allow us to make sure that we had all the labor we needed during peak hours to do what we know we can do. And now I think it really comes down to just simply doing what we know we can do with those teams. And given the fact that we've had significant turnover since 2007, we're really talking about kind of reteaching that which we know how to do to allow the people who, while terrific, might not know the techniques well enough. So it's -- we don't think it's going to be particularly difficult to really improve throughput, it's just something that now we have to turn our full focus on in the rest of this year and throughout next year.

Larry Miller - RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Research Division

Okay, that's helpful. I was just curious if you could expand on that. Maybe you see, you think it could be higher than you all believed because of some of these things you've been working on. Any order of magnitude? Am I right when I just did the quick math of roughly 5 to 6 people per day. So if you get a few more in per hour, that's about a point in traffic comp, is that right?

Montgomery F. Moran

Yes, that's right. We have about 500 transactions per day per restaurant. And so if we can get 5 more through, that will be 1%. The question is, is that 1% an incremental addition to our customers? Or would those people have waited or would they have walked away? We believe that our lines are long enough during our peak hour, particularly lunchtime, that people are walking away from the end of the line. If we can shorten that line and create even more of a reputation for being very, very quick, speedy, people will either choose to stay in line or be less intimidated by the lines than they might be today. So we think it's -- that there will be an incremental benefit of people staying in line and us increasing the overall amount of transactions per day in our restaurants. And certainly, something like 5 a day or 1% would be something that's highly achievable in my mind. And hopefully, we'll be able to do better than that over the next few years.

Larry Miller - RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Research Division

That was very helpful. I was just curious. You gave us, with the 2012 unit growth, you gave us the mix of existing versus new markets. You also gave us the mix of sort of A Models versus traditionals. Do you have any sense of sort of the any sense of the numbers that might be sort of what you would call large urban markets and smaller urban markets?

M. Steven Ells

Larry, most of our -- if you're talking urban, meaning real urban like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, something like that, that's a relatively small number of our openings. Typically, it's in the 15% to 20% range. I would expect our openings next year would not vary from that very much. So most of our opportunity is more in the suburban. If -- and when I say that, we have 100 restaurants in Chicago, but it's -- maybe 20% or so of those are in downtown Chicago. The rest are in what you might refer to as Chicago Metropolitan.

Larry Miller - RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Research Division

And then final for me. What are the -- Jack, if you could expand on that, what are the differences, if there are any, in sort of urban level volumes as you describe them and suburban level volumes. Is there anything material difference in volumes.

John R. Hartung

Well, it depends, Larry. Sometimes in urban restaurants, like, let's say, it's a downtown Chicago in The Loop. We'll be very, very busy at lunch, to among the highest lunch that we'll see in the whole country, but then do very little on the weekends, and so they might end up being an average or below-average restaurant. If you can envision a store now at Manhattan where you've not only got a lot of offices, but you've got residents nearby as well and then shopping on the weekend, that could be not only very, very busy lunch during the week, but you've got dinnertime, you've got weekend, and that could be much, much higher. I would say generally our urban restaurants are a little higher volume, but our very highest volumes in the country are -- more of them are not urban. Like our top 20, for example, more of the top 20 are I would consider to be not urban restaurants, if that helps.

Operator

And your next question will come from John Ivankoe with JPMorgan.

John W. Ivankoe - JP Morgan Chase & Co, Research Division

Actually, I think somewhat of a follow-up on that. Could you discuss the A Models. I think 30% again, if I heard that right, in 2012. And since the units were in 2010, 2011 we're achieving kind of average unit volumes, I guess, relative to the bigger units, could you discuss what you've learned from those from, I guess, a productivity perspective? And I guess importantly, why there's not even a higher mix of those units in the new unit development considering it's a lower investment cost?

M. Steven Ells

Yes, I mean, that's a great question. We've learned a tremendous amount from our A Model strategy. One thing we've learned is that there is a tremendous amount of pent-up demand for what we're doing throughout all the markets where we're -- especially all of the proven markets where we have an established group of restaurants. And so we were delighted to find that in going into these sort of less main on main sort of locations, these sort of between your locations that we were able to get huge volumes out of those locations. And we built these restaurants very carefully from a cost standpoint and knowing that we had a much better operating and occupancy cost knowing that we could sort of get away with volumes not as good as our traditional restaurants. And what we found was the volumes, the sales volumes very nearly [indiscernible] traditional restaurants, which meant that our return on investment was better than our traditional restaurants because of the lower cost structure.

So we learned a tremendous amount about the amount of pent-up demand. We've gained more confidence that we can go into places where we had hesitated to go earlier. And I think also very importantly, we learned a lot of lessons that we are able to apply now in terms of the cost structure to the rest of our restaurants, in other words, to our traditional restaurants.

In terms of why we wouldn't build more of them, I mean the answer is we would. It's really based upon how many of these we can find. When we look at the traditional locations, which still account for approximately 70% of our new restaurants, those are great, great opportunities for us. The only way to increase the amount of A Models we will do as a percentage will be to think about decreasing the amount of traditional restaurant. And there's no reason to do that given the fact that there's still a wonderful business model. And so I would say we're out there aggressively. In our proven markets, we are aggressively finding all the A Model sites we can and all the traditional sites we can, and the balance just happens to fall out in that sort of 30% range. So it's not that we're sitting here with a clipboard deciding 30% is the right number of A Models. It's just a question of what the opportunities are with the inventory is out in the marketplace and where we decide that we are able to put new restaurants.

Operator

Everyone, that appears that is all the time we have for questions. At this point, I would like to turn the conference back over to management for any additional or concluding remarks.

Alex Spong

Thanks for joining us today, and we look forward to speaking with you next quarter.

Montgomery F. Moran

Thanks, everybody.

John R. Hartung

Thanks, everyone.

M. Steven Ells

Thanks.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, that does conclude today's presentation. We do thank everyone for your participation.

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