Photographer: Caitlin O'Hara/Bloomberg

Chipotle Falls the Most in Three Months as Traffic Remains Slow

Updated on
  • Higher prices boost sales, but restaurant visits decline
  • Company continues to search for new chief executive officer

Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. plunged the most in more than three months on Wednesday after its most recent earnings report showed it’s still struggling to get customers in the door.

The Mexican-inspired chain said on Tuesday that customer traffic was negative in the fourth quarter and has remained down this year. The results suggest that the Denver-based company’s turnaround is slow going, even with a modest sales increase thanks to higher prices.

The stock fell as much as 11 percent to $271.11, wiping out Chipotle’s gains so far this year. The intraday decline was the worst since Oct. 25.

On the bright side, the closely watched benchmark of comparable sales exceeded the projection from Consensus Metrix. Profit also narrowly beat Wall Street estimates.

“While there is still work to be done, we are starting to see some success,” Chief Executive Officer Steve Ells said in a statement on Tuesday.

Chipotle’s shares have been rocked by a series of wide-ranging setbacks, everything from a food-safety crisis to a data breach to hurricane damage -- and even a viral video of mice at one of its restaurants. An attempt to add dessert to its menu stumbled, and the chain still hasn’t shown it can entice customers with new food items.

‘More Stable’

Fourth-quarter profit was $1.55 a share when including a 21-cent tax benefit. Excluding that item, earnings came in at $1.34 -- only slightly higher than the $1.33 predicted by analysts. The 0.9 percent advance in comparable sales was higher than the 0.7 percent estimate.

“These are not like knock-your-socks-off type numbers, but it is somewhat more stable than it was,” said BTIG LLC analyst Peter Saleh.

Chipotle said it expects a same-store sales gain in the “low-single digits” this year.

The chain said it will boost capital expenditures this year and give employees bonuses after the U.S. tax overhaul. Hourly workers can earn $250, while restaurant managers may take home $1,000. It’s also expanding certain benefits, including paid parental leave.

In November, Ells agreed to step down as CEO when a new leader is found. The news sent the shares up, a sign investors are hopeful new leadership can help the chain bounce back after E. coli and norovirus sickened hundreds of its customers across the U.S. The stock has tumbled in each of the past three years.

“We are making good progress on our search for a new CEO who can improve execution, drive sales and enable Chipotle to realize our enormous potential,” Ells said on Tuesday.

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