Timing is everything when it comes to investing. If we were pitting Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG) against Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) last summer, it would be a battle of market darlings. Starbucks is still feasting as the barista baron of choice, but Chipotle has never been the same since food-borne illness outbreaks scared away potential patrons.
Both stocks hit all-time highs during the latter half of last year, but at least Starbucks finds itself just 11% off of that peak as of Thursday morning. Chipotle is trading 45% below its all-time high, so it would have to nearly double to revisit its high-water mark.
Chipotle may be earlier in its expansion cycle -- 2,066 units vs. 23,291 coffee-pouring outlets for Starbucks -- but it's clearly in a funk. It's coming off of its first quarterly deficit as a public company. Comps plummeted 29.7% in its latest quarter, a combination of a 21% plunge in transactions and coupon-wielding customers spending less per transaction.
That's an absurd freefall in popularity, and a sharp contrast to Starbucks' steady production during the same three months. Global comps rose 6% for the premium coffee leader, consisting of a 2% uptick in transactions, and folks spending 4% more than a year earlier.
Both concepts are still expanding, and that's resulting in revenue growing faster than comparable-restaurant sales. Revenue rose 9% at Starbucks. Chipotle's top-line fell by a head-shaking 23%.
The path down to the bottom line also couldn't be more different. Starbucks' operating margin is expanding, and earnings per share rose 18% during this year's first quarter. It's another story at Chipotle where the impact of the unfavorable sales leverage is being made worse by expanding costs for promotions, food testing, and waste costs.
Placing an order for tomorrow
The two companies are clearly in different states right now. This makes a side-by-side comparison in terms of valuation tricky. You can't base Chipotle's value on the current suppressed state of its financial results, but you're also going out on a limb by valuing the stock based on its historic earnings trajectory.
Chipotle and Starbucks have historically traded at a premium to the market, and deservedly so. There's no java chain coming anywhere close to Starbucks, and despite Chipotle's recent setback, there really isn't another fast-casual burrito roller anywhere close to the "food with integrity" operator.
Chipotle's stock has fallen harder than its fundamentals, and the stock is now fetching an enterprise value that is 2.8 times its trailing sales. Starbucks trades at a higher multiple of 4.2 times trailing sales.
It's not fair to value Chipotle on its present bottom-line situation, but since bullish and bearish analysts eye 2018 as the year when the struggling restaurant chain gets back on track, let's go out that far to weigh in both companies. Chipotle is trading at 24 times Wall Street's profit target for 2018; Starbucks clocks in at 22 times 2018's earnings estimate.
That's not cheap on either front, especially when so much can go wrong on either front. Then again, outside of Chipotle's recent hiccup, and Starbucks sputtering for a bit during the global recession when sales declined in fiscal 2009, history has often been kinder than expected. Based on trailing sales where Starbucks is pricier, and on "way" forward earnings of 2018 where Chipotle has a slightly loftier markup, both stocks are comparably priced when rough seas subside.
It all boils down to how you view Chipotle's prospects for a prompt and complete turnaround. You may also want to consider if the opportunity for Chipotle's concept is more than a tenth that of Starbucks given where each chain is in its growth cycle. Neither stock is cheap now, but they have rallied over the years without that ever being the case. It may take some time for Chipotle to bounce back and for Starbucks to work off its frothy valuation, but both stocks should continue to be market beaters over the long haul.