Friday, October 23, 2009

Chipotle to try a new design, development strategy

Chipotle’s menu tweaks drew Balloon Boy-scale coverage when the burrito chain previewed them last spring. But changes in the concept’s design and development strategy are slipping past almost without notice. And that’s surprising, given how the concept is really tinkering with its DNA this time.

Officials disclosed plans yesterday to revamp the layout of stores to reduce energy consumption, crewmember motion, and construction costs. New stores will also have less stainless steel and more tiling in their kitchens, a switch that will ease cleaning operations, the execs said.

At the same time, the chain will broaden its development criteria to include what co-CEO Monty Moran characterized as “Tier 2 trade areas,” or locations with lower but acceptable traffic and enticingly low development costs. Because the so-called Model A restaurants will be less expensive to build, they can provide a better return than conventional sites, even with a lower sales volume, he explained.

He indicated that as many as 30 of those second-tier sites could be developed during 2010, or roughly one-fourth of all the locations that come on-line. CFO Jack Hartung said that mix would lower the average cost of new sites to $850,000 each, from the current $900,000.

Part of that rollback, Hartung indicated, will be generated by changes in the standard format and design of stores.

Founder and co-CEO Steve Ells explained that Chipotle wants to get back to what it was when he launched the concept.

“Our earliest restaurants were generally smaller, simpler and very efficient,” he told financial analysts during a conference call. “As we grew, our restaurants became larger, more architecturally complex, and in some instances less efficient than before.” Now, he said, it’s back to the future.

The layout of units will be revamped “to suggest a flow in the restaurants rather than physical barriers,” he said.

Ells didn’t explain how that would be achieved, but did offer that workstations would both be expanded and set up to eliminated wasted action on the part of employees. He did not say if those adjustments would reduce labor costs.

Definite savings would come from changes in lighting, equipment, and construction materials, he noted. For instance, the chain is switching to a “European-style plancha, which is a flat-top grill,” instead of using a griddle, Ells explained. The device is also smaller than the equipment it replaced, which in turn enables a smaller vent and HVAC system to be used, the CIA grad suggested.

“Over the years, we went through a 10-year period of double-digit comps, and as we saw our volumes go up, we needed to react to those volumes,” he told the portfolio managers participating in the call. “So as we built new restaurants, we built them bigger. We were cooking a lot more chicken and steak on the grill, so we got a bigger grill. In order to accommodate that bigger grill, you have to have a bigger hood. In order to have a bigger hood, you have to have more make-up air and have a larger air conditioning unit on top. In order to do that, you have to have more power coming to the building.”

He also noted the changeover to white tiles in the kitchens. When the new facings were first tested, some bloggers said the surface switch would make stores more eco-friendly, since tiles are easier to recover and reuse than stainless steel. But Chipotle execs didn’t mention any green advantages, other than the cash that would be saved overall with the new design.

Analysts on the call pressed Ells about the change, perhaps out of shock. Design has been hailed by Chipotle as an integral part of the concept. Indeed, any die-hard Chipotle follower knows that a design specialist was one of Ells’ first hires when he was building a team, and the look of stores is often cited as a key part of the chain’s character.

The stockpickers also voiced some concern about the new siting strategy. As Moran acknowledged, Chipotle has traditionally sought out locations that provide high visibility to a heavy stream of passers-by. Those developments were expensive, but the units would open to instant success, with “superior returns” from sales topping $1.3 million a year, he said.

Are you worried that these second-tier stores might siphon sales away from units in primo locations?, one analyst asked.

If anything, this approach will allow the chain to expand into more unfamiliar markets, lessening the chances of cannibalization, Moran said.

The analysts seemed more comfortable with Chipotle’s plans to expand abroad, another departure of sorts for the brand. Its one market outside of the United States at present is Toronto. But Ells said a restaurant will be opened in London during the second quarter of 2010.

A transcript of the conference call was made available by the SeekingAlpha financial information service.

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