It’s Time for Chipotle Investors to Pay Attention to Zoe’s Kitchen

Zoe's Kitchen (NYSE: ZOES  ) issued its first quarterly report as a public company last week. I first wrote about Zoe's Kitchen back in April after its IPO, when the stock surged more than 64% on its first day of trading. I was waiting for its first earnings report to tell whether the company would go the way of Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG  ) or Noodles & Company (NASDAQ: NDLS  ) . Judging by the impressive quarterly numbers, it looks like we may have another Chipotle Mexican Grill on our hands and not a Noodles & Company.

Source: Zoe's Kitchen

Zoe's first-quarter numbers
Total revenue increased more than 47%, and same-store sales rose 5.7%. The same-store sales increase consisted of a 4.1% jump in traffic and a 1.6% increase in prices. Zoe's Kitchen opened 13 restaurants in the quarter and acquired two restaurants from franchisees. Adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization increased more than 42% to $3.8 million.

Source: Zoe's Kitchen

The one negative is that Zoe's reported a loss of $0.02 per share, which was worse than the loss reported in the prior-year period of $0.01 per share. The loss was primarily due to one-time charges from the IPO and interest payments on expired debt. The good news is that Zoe's Kitchen beat earnings expectations by $0.01. The consensus was for a loss of $0.03 per share.

The outlook is bright
Zoe's is also reinvesting in its business, and most of its growth is coming from new company-owned restaurants. Since Feb. 24, Zoe's Kitchen has opened a total of nine new restaurants, which brought its total restaurant count to 120. This is impressive, considering that Zoe's Kitchen had only 21 restaurants back in 2008.

Source: Zoe's Kitchen

For the full year, Zoe's Kitchen is forecasting restaurant sales of between $166 million and $170 million. This is quite a jump from the $116.4 million that Zoe's Kitchen posted last year. Same-store sales are expected to grow 4% to 6% this year. Zoe's Kitchen plans to expand its store base by opening a total of 28 to 30 new restaurants.

Zoe's Kitchen CEO Kevin Miles also plans on boosting Zoe's dinner and take-out business. Currently, this part of the day accounts for 40% of all sales, and his goal is to boost Zoe's dinner business to 50% of total sales.

Chipotle remains the gold standard
Chipotle's first-quarter numbers continued to show how strong Chipotle's business is. Impressive gains were seen across the board. Same-store sales rose more than 13% and revenue jumped 24% from the prior year. During the quarter, Chipotle opened 44 new restaurants and brought its total restaurant count to 1,637. For the full year, Chipotle plans to open a total of 180 to 195 new restaurants. Full-year same-store sales are expected to be in the high-single digits.

Source: Chipotle Mexican Grill

The strong numbers have benefited Chipotle's shareholders. Shares are up more than 55% in the past year. With more than $706 million in cash and no debt, Chipotle will have no trouble funding its expansion plans and its $177 million share-repurchase program.

It's been a disappointing year for Noodles & Company
Noodles shares are trading near their lows since the company's IPO. This comes as its quarterly numbers have been disappointing. In the first quarter, systemwide same-store sales were down 1.6%. The company blamed the weather for its weak sales results, but the weather wasn't much of a factor for Zoe's Kitchen or Chipotle. Earnings per share showed no growth, as Noodles & Company earned $0.05 a share, the same as last year.

Source: restaurantmagazine.com

Noodles & Company is still forecasting growth for 2014 after a disappointing first quarter. The company expects same-store sales to grow 2.5% to 3% over last year. Noodles & Company plans to open 42 to 50 new restaurants, and its franchise partners plan to open 10 to 15 new locations.

Noodles & Company shareholders are hoping management delivers. Shares are still looking expensive, trading at 51 times next year's earnings. Shares are more expensive than Chipotle shares, which trade at only 35 times next year's earnings. Another disappointing quarter and shares of Noodles & Company are likely to head lower.

Foolish final thoughts
I really like the Zoe's Kitchen concept. A Mediterranean diet is well known for its added health benefits, and Zoe's Kitchen is at the forefront of this dietary trend. I think shareholders of Zoe's Kitchen can rest a little easier knowing that the first quarter is out of the way. If Zoe's Kitchen can continue posting strong numbers, it might just be the next Chipotle Mexican Grill that investors are looking for.

This opportunity could be bigger than Chipotle and Zoe's combined
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