Chipotle restaurant workers fill orders for customers.
Photograph by Joe Raedle Getty Images
By Lucinda Shen
April 14, 2016

Despite its crippling food safety crisis, the Chipotle brand is so strong that customers will slowly gravitate back to the chain, according to analysts from J.P. Morgan.

In a Thursday note, the investment bank upgraded the stock from neutral to overweight—a more moderated form of buy. J.P. Morgan also hauled the stock’s Dec. 16 target price up to $510 from $465, sending shares of Chipotle (cmg) up 3% in early trading.

“In all, our call is based on Chipotle being a highly meaningful brand, that with time and expense can regain customer trust,” a team of J.P. Morgan analysts led by John Ivankoe wrote, noting that Chipotle’s average per-store sales likely hit rock bottom in the first quarter of 2016 and are set to “sequentially improve” from now on. The bank also expects Chipotle’s earnings to gradually recover in 2016 and then ramp up meteorically in 2017 before settling into normal growth in 2018.

That makes Chipotle’s current share price a good entry point for investors seeking a discount, the analysts wrote.

Chipotle’s stock has been devastated in the past few months by reports of E. coli outbreaks in nine states and a norovirus episode in Boston. Shares have fallen 34% in the past 12 months, while same-store sales fell 26% in the first week of March.

 

J.P. Morgan also echoed a sentiment already felt on Wall Street that the food safety crisis has cost the company three years worth of earnings growth, so recovery won’t be easy.

Chipotle Mexican Grill has been doing damage control with free burritos and guacamole, but sales have still flagged.

Other ways the chain can accelerate its recovery, according to J.P. Morgan, include extending store hours, adding more limited-time menu items, or attaching drive-throughs to some stores.

The upgrade is also a notable change from J.P. Morgan’s tone in December, when Ivankoe and team downgraded Chipotle’s stock to neutral after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reportedly found more people sickened by the E. Coli outbreak. They wrote that “even a rational and informed consumer could potentially be given reason when choosing Chipotle.”

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