1 Unsolicited Foolish Suggestion for Chipotle Mexican Grill

I'm an unabashed bull when it comes to Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG  )  -- both the stock and the food. Its mission of "Food With Integrity" is an admirable one that has helped give the company an edge in the fast-growing fast-casual dining segment.

I'm a big believer in the notion that we can always get better, and with all that Chipotle does so well, a recent conversation I had with Motley Fool's CEO, Tom Gardner, had us both thinking that there may just be an opportunity for Chipotle to separate itself even more from the pack. It would take thoughtful effort to carry out, but if management could tackle the issue of sodium content in Chipotle's food, it could very well lead the company to much greater things down the road.

A quick and salty primer 
The numbers are there for all to see. Approximately 90% of Americans eat more sodium than is recommended for a healthy diet. And I'll be the first to say it's a lock I fall into that category (hanging my head in shame). On average, Americans consume about 3,300 mg of sodium each day versus the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommendation of 2,300 mg per day or less. Furthermore, about 6 out of 10 adults should limit their sodium intake to no more than 1,500 mg a day.

The effects of too much sodium in the diet aren't immediate. But over time, too much sodium can lead to increased risk of high blood pressure, which can potentially lead to heart disease, stroke, and other vascular diseases. The bottom line is that over time, too much sodium isn't healthy.

Where does it come from?
The fact is that it's not always so obvious which foods are lower in sodium and which foods are higher. Cottage cheese, for example, is seemingly healthy and a great source of protein, but it's high in sodium. Many breakfast cereals are high in sodium. And dressings and sauces tend to have higher sodium levels as well.

With restaurants, it's even more difficult to ascertain how much sodium we intake because it's not often clearly labeled. While the majority of sodium consumption comes from the food we buy from the store, I would also venture to say that the percentage that comes from our eating at restaurants continues to grow as dining out becomes more of an option.

OK, get to the point...
Let me be very clear about something: I am NOT ganging up on Chipotle here. This is not a Chipotle-specific problem at all. A Chipotle burrito with the basics (chicken, rice, cheese, sour cream, lettuce, and salsa) will cost you 1,870 mg of sodium. If you have a burrito bowl instead, that takes it down to 1,200, so you can see that the flour tortilla in this case is high in sodium. But restaurants all over the United States offer up menu items with high sodium levels:

  • A McDonald's Quarter Pounder with Cheese will cost you 1,100 mg of sodium.
  • A Panera Bread Tuna Salad Sandwich on Honey Wheat will cost you 1,150 mg of sodium.
  • A Yum! Brands Taco Bell Cantina Burrito will cost you 1,960 mg of sodium.

I could go on and on pulling examples of low-sodium offerings and high-sodium offerings; that's not the point. My point is that Chipotle could look at this as an opportunity to separate itself even further from its competitors by figuring out ways in which it might be able to offer its loyal customers even more choices.

So you have a better idea?
I love the fact that Chipotle is so open and transparent about its offerings; when you look at its nutrition menu (you can see it by clicking here) it itemizes everything. The flour tortilla (670 mg) and vinaigrette (700 mg) stand out as the two biggest offenders in regard to sodium. And the carnitas and red tomato salsa aren't too terribly far behind. Maybe there are some opportunities here to find some lower-sodium alternatives? Of course, customers can just make the choice to have a burrito bowl and call it a day, too.

Another option may be to cut back ever so slightly on the portion size (or possibly offer an additional, smaller option on the menu). I love the fact that a Chipotle burrito fills my tummy for a day, but I bet they could ratchet back ever so slightly on some of the portions such that consumers wouldn't really notice the difference. Just my two cents; I could be wrong.

The Foolish bottom line
I'm not going to stop eating at Chipotle, and that's my personal choice; it's not like I eat there every day. But I do believe that management could view sodium intake as yet another opportunity to separate Chipotle even more from its competition. It would more than likely be well received by many consumers who might be on the fence today. At the very least it's right in line with the company's mission, which is something customers and investors have got to love.

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  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2014, at 4:31 PM, EquityBull wrote:

    Went to a Chipotle last night. Their bigger problem to growth is throughput still. The store closest to me puts through about 1 customer per minute. I counted people ahead of me to the register and timed on my iphone. Throughput is about one customer per minute. Dreadful. I've done this 5 times at this particular store and always between 45 seconds to over a minute per customer. So if you have just 30 people ahead if you strap yourself in for a 30 minute wait.

    Another store I go to a little further seems to fare much better at about 2x that speed.

    I watched people at the slower store leave the line and not even get on it and just walk away each time I've been there. These are lost sales. I've also spoken with people on the line who said they often don't come because they don't want to wait so long. Of course most do wait but as a shareholder disturbing trend and performance

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2014, at 6:42 PM, TMFJMo wrote:

    @EquityBull

    I couldn't agree more that throughput is perhaps the biggest challenge AND opportunity for virtually any restaurant focused on serving the masses. A few points I'll just note from recent calls and presentations:

    Chipotle's highest throughput restaurants work 350 transactions per hour through the line during lunch. The average throughput overall though is less than half that. Management sees this as an opportunity.

    In the most recent quarter they saw an overall average increase of seven transactions at their peak lunch hour, and seven additional transactions during the peak dinner hour. And on one of the busiest days of their week, Friday, they saw an increase of 11 transactions during their peak lunch hour.

    My point is that while there is no question that throughput is always a concern, it's also one of the top priorities of management. Can they do better? Yes. Are they doing a great job today? I say they're one of the best. In time, more stores should also help the cause.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Foolish best,

    Jason

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