Chipotle (NYSE:CMG) is set to report fourth-quarter earnings on Tuesday, Feb. 2, and it is shaping up to be another positive one for shareholders. The fast-casual restaurant chain bounced back from the devasting effects of the coronavirus pandemic. It did this by acting quickly and gearing itself for online ordering and meal delivery.

The decision is bearing fruit, as digital sales increased by over 200% year over year in the third quarter alone. Still, challenges remain for Chipotle in these highly volatile conditions for restaurants. Here are three things you'll want to look at when Chipotle announces its fourth-quarter earnings Tuesday.

A burrito bowl.

Image source: Getty Images.

Keeping the long-term plan intact

First, investors will want to look at overall revenue growth and the split between comparable restaurant sales growth and new store openings. Chipotle estimated that it would open 200 new locations in 2021, which would increase its total of 2,710 by about 7%. And comparable restaurant sales increased by 8.3% in the most recent quarter. Those two positives may be offset by the surge in coronavirus cases since it last reported. If the positives outweigh the effects of the pandemic, it will be great news for shareholders.

Second, those interested in the stock will want to know how well it managed expenses. The restaurant-level operating profit margin was 19.2% in the most recent quarter, which was down 1.5 percentage points from the same period a year ago. The rapid rise of digital sales is putting pressure on margins because of the increasing costs of delivery. Here's a good explanation from the company's press release on why that is the case:

Delivery service revenue is comprised of delivery and related service fees charged to customers on sales made through Chipotle's app and website. The amount that we remit to our delivery partner for sales through our app and website is higher than what we collect from customers and is included in other operating costs.

However, management has said that it will be testing price increases to offset some of the rise in costs. If successful, the increases could be a boon for profits in the long term, as costs associated with the pandemic start to decrease over time.

Lastly, you will want to hear what management has to say on the pace of opening new stores and the long-term outlook on locations. If management projects an optimistic outlook on both, it could be good news for shareholders. Chipotle management often says it feels confident that the company can more than double its current store base of 2,710 longer-term. In these volatile times for the restaurant industry, it will be reassuring if management repeats that claim and sheds more light on yearly store opening targets.

What this could mean for investors 

Average analyst expectations on Wall Street are for Chipotle to report revenue of $1.61 billion and earnings per share of $3.73, which would be increases of 11.5% and 30.4%, respectively. If Chipotle meets or exceeds Wall Street's expectations, the fast-casual restaurant's shares could increase following the report.

This potential for a stock price increase is could also be affected by the fact that more than 27 million people in the U.S. have now received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. And the number of people getting sick and hospitalized with COVID-19 is decreasing again. Investors looking for a company that is poised for growth to accelerate once the pandemic's effect has eased dramatically can add Chipotle to their list.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.