It's been four years this month since Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG) had its world rocked by the first of the foodborne-illness outbreaks at the burrito chain, a string of brand-tarnishing events that would leave the shares to surrender more than two-thirds of their value by the time they bottomed out early last year.
Chipotle has since come all the way back in dramatic fashion. Hitting all-time highs in recent weeks, the stock has had a breathtaking recovery. Now Chipotle has a chance to prove that its monster gains over the past two years are warranted when it delivers fresh financial results this week.
Now, investing in restaurant stocks isn't for the weak of heart -- or stomach. Customer tastes can be fickle, and the growing popularity of third-party delivery apps has leveled the playing field for indie operators. Chipotle seems to be making a lot of smart moves lately, but there's still a lot riding on the third-quarter results that the chain will serve up shortly after Tuesday's market close.
Chipotle stock has nearly doubled in 2019, and the 95% year-to-date return follows a smoking performance in 2018. Momentum is on the company's side after it delivered blowout second-quarter results this summer, and everything seems to be going its way heading into Tuesday afternoon's report.
Chipotle has topped Wall Street's quarterly profit targets over the past year, and analyst estimates for the third quarter and beyond have been inching higher with every passing month. Analysts see revenue rising 13% higher to $1.38 billion for the quarter, fueled partly by new openings but mostly the result of its buoyant comps. The script has flipped from its peak growth years, when heady expansion was a bigger contributor to its top-line bursts than unit-level sales growth. Last time out, it was an impressive 10% pop in comps that helped boost a pedestrian 2% uptick in its store count over the past year, and it should be more of the same this time around.
Digital sales have been a game changer, inflating comps as folks take to Chipotle's mobile app to skip the order line as well as the third-party apps that send freelancing drivers on food runs. Keeping up its recent pace may be challenging, but for now it's rolling like its burritos in assembly. Chipotle is highly likely to rattle off its fourth consecutive quarter of double-digit revenue growth, something we haven't seen since 2015.
The news should be even better at the other end of the income statement, where analysts are modeling a profit of $3.19 a share, 48% ahead of where it landed a year ago. Adjusted earnings have been outpacing revenue gains lately, but if you want some sobering news, consider that Chipotle's earnings clocked in at a record $4.65 a share during the same quarter in 2015. The stock is back, margins are trending in the right direction, and revenue has never been higher -- but we may never reach the peak margins Chipotle was generating in 2014 and 2015.
Investors are cool with the new normal, apparently. Now the chain needs another blowout financial performance to keep the party going.