Chipotle Going Asian (CMG, PFCB, MCD)

Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (NYSE: CMG) opens its first Asian-themed store today, called ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, in a move calculated to take advantage of consumer demand for limited-service Asian food. Sales of Asian food grew at nearly a 6% rate in 2010, and are expected to grow by another 5% this year, making the Asian restaurants the fastest growing segment of the limited-service market.

While not a crowded field, there is certainly competition. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Inc. (NASDAQ: PFCB) owns and operates 168 Pei Wei stores in the same space and another 200 or so of its namesake stores. Privately-held Panda Restaurant Group, Inc. operates more than 1,300 mall-based Panda Express stores and Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, Inc., another privately-held firm, operates more than 90 Pick Up Stix stores in the US southwest.

Chipotle shares have gained more than 80% in the past 12 months, while P.F. Chang’s shares have fallen by around -40%. The pricier Chang’s has stalled as customers have voted with their feet, staying away from higher priced casual dining in favor of lower cost stores like Chipotle.

But even low-priced stores are having their troubles. McDonald’s Corp. (NYSE: MCD), which had been growing nicely for several quarters, had a downturn in its August sales. That is not a positive signal for a new lower-priced option like Chipotle’s new ShopHouse brand, and Chipotle originally came from McDonald’s.

And brand is another problem. Building a solid new brand is not easy or cheap in the best economic times — and the US economy is not anywhere near its best right now. Chipotle also faces the problem of essentially being unable to leverage its solid position in Mexican food eateries in a completely different style of cooking. The situation resembles what you might think if your favorite local Mexican restaurant suddenly began serving Thai food. The usual reaction is to ask what the heck the store knows about making Thai food. To avoid that reaction costs a lot and if Chipotle puts enough money behind the ShopHouse stores, the company might come up with a winner.

Chipotle’s revenue grew 22% in its most recent quarter. If the company can keep that up, there’s no reason to think that the ShopHouse stores won’t be successful. But that’s a pretty big ‘if’ as the economic data keeps slowing.

Shares in Chipotle are up about 0.5% today, at $317.40, in a 52-week range of $164.26-$337.32. P.F. Chang’s shares are up more than 1%, at $29.16, in a 52-week range of $27.50-$53.39.

Paul Ausick