Chipotle may be known for burritos, but its tacos are pretty tasty, too. Source: Chipotle

Hot, fresh, and healthy burrito maker Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG) has a tough act to follow, coming off a third quarter in which earnings grew almost 60% from the year before. Chipotle is scheduled to report fourth-quarter and full-year results today, Feb. 3. Here are some of the highlights for the company's results through the first nine months of the year:

  • Sales up 28%.
  • Same-store -- or comparable -- sales up 17%.
  • Net income up 30%.

In short, the company continues to grow at a phenomenal rate. However, management's guidance for both the fourth quarter and for 2015 reflect declining rates of growth. For the full year 2014, management is expecting "mid-teens" comparable sales, meaning that the fourth quarter's comps will come in below the 17% growth so far this year. 

And for 2015, the company outlook is for "low to mid-single digit" comps growth. Let's take a look back -- and a look forward. Chipotle reports earnings for the full year and fourth quarter on Feb. 3. Let's see what we can learn before earnings, so we can apply proper context to the results and better understand the company as an investment. 

2014's growth will be hard to repeat 
It was one heck of an amazing year for Chipotle in 2014 -- unless you're a carnitas fan

A number of things have aligned to make for such strong growth, including a rebounding domestic economy that's driving more traffic to its stores, and the company's first price increase in three years, contributing about 6% of the comps growth. 

Looking ahead, the projections for 2015 are conservative, but considering the high growth rate the company saw both before the recession and the bounce-back years of 2013 and 2014, it's easy to understand why management is being conservative. 

Looking at 2015
While the company delayed price increases for as long as it could, the comps growth benefit of the price increase will only benefit 2014. It will continue to benefit the bottom line and cash flow growth for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, the continuing store expansion -- around 200 new stores will be opened in 2015 -- will continue to bring further scale benefits and reduce distribution costs per store. 

Management is indeed being conservative about its guidance for the year, but with good reason. According to CEO Steve Ells, from the Q3 earnings call:

Hopefully we will -- the comp guidance we have today -- we'll come back and say, "Boy, it looked conservative at the time." But there is no other way for us to predict it other than to take our current sales trends, and then assume they don't change and then we back into a number which falls into that low- to mid-single-digit range.

Looking beyond 
The reality is, it's reasonable to expect much of the growth over the next couple of years to be largely driven by new store openings and to keep moderate expectations for comps growth after nearly two years of double-digit comps expansion. Comps look at sales at locations open more than a year.

However, the continued benefits of growth on the bottom line and free cash flow will be greater than just the raw growth numbers themselves. While that's no guarantee of what the stock price will do over the next 12 months, it's a reminder that Chipotle has what should matter to investors even more than a year's results: solid management running a fantastic business with strong growth prospects and huge appeal.

In the coming years, Pizzeria Locale and ShopHouse -- two other concepts still early in development -- could drive even further growth, so even if Chipotle's growth rate falls to "only" 20% or so, the future still looks great.