I like Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG), both as a business and as a consumer who enjoys tacos. The company has figured out how to create great-tasting fast food made from recognizable ingredients at a decent price.
When you eat at the Mexican chain, you don't feel bad about your choice (though you may regret tacking on an order of chips and salsa or queso). Compared to the countless fried food, cheap burger, and lower-end Mexican -- not to mention pizza or Chinese -- chains available, eating at Chipotle counts as a good decision.
That, plus the company's increasing menu innovation under new CEO Brian Niccol and its dramatically improved in-restaurant efficiency, should make Chipotle stock a buy. Unfortunately, the company remains very vulnerable to reports -- either real or false -- of food-related illness. That's why even though I like the stock and believe it will rise in the long term, I'm personally not going to touch it.
What is Chipotle's issue?
Back in 2015, Chipotle was responsible for an E. coli outbreak that affected about 60 customers across restaurants in 14 states. Consumers punished the brand for that misstep, even though the chain changed its procedures and closed down all of its stores for an afternoon to retrain employees.
In most cases, that type of food-safety issue would fade in importance over time. The problem is that Chipotle built its brand around the tagline "food with integrity." It took every opportunity to tell customers that its food was superior to that of its fast-food rivals.
What Chipotle never pointed out is that fresh food comes with a greater risk of foodborne illness than frozen, heavily processed, and preserved food. This means that no matter what the chain does, it's likely to still have the occasional customer get sick. It's also likely to be faced with customers who get sick for other reasons but blame it on the food.
It's an endless loop
I'm not buying Chipotle stock because it's subject to irrational volatility. If a new claim of E. coli comes out, the company has to overreact. That's why the chain is again retraining employees on food safety after a recent incident in Ohio where customers said they got sick after eating at one of the chain's restaurants.
Chipotle shares fell 6% on the day the news broke and roughly 3.5% the next day. This incident was the company's fault, according to a CNNMoney report by .
An Ohio public health department determined that the cause was a bacteria called Clostridium perfringens, which is caused by food being left at an unsafe temperature. It said that 647 people reported feeling sick after eating at the location. The CDC is still testing samples.
That's an issue that can be lessened with more training, but people make mistakes. People "feeling sick" does not mean Chipotle is poisoning its customers or has an unsafe business model. The company sells fresh food and that comes with certain (generally minor) risks.
I'm a customer, not a shareholder
It's irrational for a stock to bounce up and down based on minor food-safety issues, which the company clearly takes seriously. It would be like Nike stock dropping by 10% every time an athlete twists an ankle. These things happen sometimes. Procedures can make mistakes happen less often, but they can't eliminate the risk.
Chipotle is a well-run company that serves a great product. I'll remain a customer and eat there at least once a month, but I'm not buying shares of a stock that is subject to such rapid swings based on relatively minor issues. That does not mean shares won't ultimately head higher: I believe they will. Chipotle stock is just not for me, due to its volatility and the potential for a bigger food-safety issue to do long-term damage to the brand.