Foursquare CEO Jeff Glueck has given Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (NYSE: CMG) investors a preview of what are predicted to be horrible earnings for the restaurant chain come April 26. If they are any less horrible than Glueck is predicting, Chipotle shares could actually end up gaining, if not immediately post earnings, then in the weeks and months following.
Foursquare is an app with about 50 million monthly active users that recommends restaurants, among other things, based on a user’s location and interests. Extrapolating from the data compiled by the app over the past quarter, Glueck sees sales at Chipotle dropping close to 30% and foot traffic 23%. These dismal figures already take into account that Chipotle is currently one of the most hated companies in America, according to 24/7 Wall St. research. An embarrassing norovirus outbreak in March followed five E. coli incidents since July 2015 that sickened hundreds of people. To say sentiment is down would be putting it mildly.
The key number to watch for won’t be revenues though. Investors know that sales will be down because not only have the outbreaks scared people away, but the company has been handing out free food via coupons to its most loyal customers to get them back inside. It is foot traffic that will really matter come the earnings report. If Chipotle can show that people are still coming to its restaurants, regardless of whether they happen to be actually paying for their food, then it means the chain is being forgiven. If foot traffic is down less than 20% this quarter, it will be a huge plus for the Mexican fast-food chain.
On the stock’s side is that the company is still in ship financial shape, with zero debt and plenty of cash, and that the bull trend in stocks in general appears to have resumed since February. Chipotle even may choose to take advantage of the tainting of its brand name to expand its other fresh food chain concepts, while armed with E. coli and norovirus experience this time. Chipotle’s other chains include 13 ShopHouse Southeast Asian restaurants, and three pizzerias. Plans to develop a new burger chain were revealed in late March, two weeks after the latest norovirus outbreak.
Given Chipotle’s strong balance sheet, the fact that some customers are now wary of the brand makes this an opportune time for it to jumpstart new brands based on the same locally grown ingredients and anti-GMO fast-food concepts that spurred the restaurant to success in the first place. This is predicated on the assumption that Chipotle’s food poisoning problems are long gone, an assumption that did indeed fail in March.
But if all that is now finally over and foot traffic has not declined as badly as Foursquare predicts, there are still good days ahead for Chipotle and its shareholders.