Wall Street Sees Darks Days Ahead for Chipotle After Norovirus Outbreak In Virginia

July 19, 2017, 3:41 PM UTC

Even though Chipotle (CMG) is emphasizing that the norovirus outbreak at a Virginia location is an isolated incident, Wall Street seems to agree that the damage to the company’s reputation has already spread.

Wells Fargo Securities and BMO Capital Markets downgraded the stock to the equivalent of “hold” from “buy” Wednesday, while Baird and Barclays cut their estimates for the company.

“On the surface, norovirus at a single location is not overly significant,” wrote BMO Capital Markets’ Andrew Strelzik, reducing their 12-month stock target price to $350. “That said, customers’ psyche likely remained fragile and we believe there is a reasonable probability that media coverage of the new illnesses will outweigh the actual severity of the incident and create renewed [sales] weakness.”

That downgrade came as shares of the company dipped 2% after reports customers at a Chipotle in Sterling, Va., experienced vomiting, stomach pains, and diarrhea shortly after eating there. (Norovirus is also referred to as the “winter vomiting bug”.)

It was hardly a note of confidence for the company, still recovering from an E.Coli outbreak that started in late 2015. Though it’s been nearly a year and a half since the crisis, earning back customer trust from Chipotle has been difficult, despite several attempts from the company, including promotions such as free guacamole and discounts, to pick up in-store foot traffic. While shares at that time traded at around $730 in 2015, they have since shed 50%.

In a worst case scenario, the most recent outbreak could undo the good will Chipotle has worked so hard for this past year, Morgan Stanley analysts wrote in a Wednesday note to clients.

In late 2016, Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells admitted that he was “nervous” about the company’s ability to reach its 2017 sales forecast following the 2015 outbreak.

Now, investment banking firm BTIG sees Chipotle missing their targets. The firm lowered its 2017 earnings per share estimates to $7.48, down from $8.38, and below Chipotle’s goal of $10. This is partly because Chipotle may have to spend even more to recover from the Virginia outbreak. Chipotle’s earnings had already been pressured in previous quarters partly due to spending on promotions.

“Chipotle may need to invest more resources in preventing future outbreaks while the ability to take menu pricing is delayed following this latest outbreak,” BTIG’s Peter Saleh wrote in a client note, recommending “hold” for the stock. “While norovirus does not come from the food supply, we believe customers will take little comfort in that distinction and some will likely avoid Chipotle at least in the near-term.”

And as Sara Senatore of Bernstein notes, Chipotle’s management has work to do.

“But in the aftermath of the E. Coli outbreak and the battering of the business, investors must trust in management’s ability to execute and we think they still have work to do to earn that,” Senatore wrote. “We are hopeful that the presence of more outside management talent – and perhaps more pressure from the board – will improve execution.”

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