Chipotle Sales Plunge as Health Woes Bring Federal Subpoena

Same-Store Sales Plummeted 30% in December

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Credit: Courtesy Chipotle

Chipotle Mexican Grill, struggling to rebound from multiple outbreaks of foodborne illness, reported a worse-than-expected plunge in fourth-quarter sales and said it was served with a grand jury subpoena in a federal criminal investigation.

Same-store sales -- a closely watched benchmark -- tumbled 14.6% in the period, the Denver-based company said in a regulatory filing on Wednesday. The decline, Chipotle's first quarterly drop as a public company, was previously projected to be as much as 11%. The subpoena, meanwhile, stemmed from a probe into a norovirus outbreak by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the central district of California, which is working with the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations.

Chipotle's reputation has been hammered in recent months by an outbreak of E. coli that afflicted at least 53 people in nine states. That was followed by a norovirus contagion at a Boston location that sickened more than 140 college students. A new spate of illnesses in three additional states was announced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late last month.

The shares fell as much as 3% to $435.73 in New York after the filing was released, reaching their lowest point in more than two years. The stock declined 30% in 2015.

In the wake of the Boston outbreak -- and the national news coverage that followed -- same-store sales fell 34%, the company said on Wednesday. After the CDC report on the additional E. coli cases in late December, the sales dropped 37%. They were down 30% for the full month of December, Chipotle said.

The company now estimates that fourth-quarter earnings will range from $1.70 to $1.90 a share. Analysts had predicted $2.49, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Chipotle also expects to record $14 million to $16 million in expenses during the quarter because of the crisis. The company has had to replace food in restaurants, conduct lab tests and boost marketing to cope with the situation.

Chipotle also is making more share buybacks as it tries to placate investors. The board agreed to repurchase $300 million in stock, in addition to $300 million announced on Dec. 4.

California Case
The subpoena pertains to a norovirus outbreak at a Chipotle in Simi Valley, California, in August. It sickened 234 customers and employees, though it didn't generate much national publicity before the later E. coli incidents.

The illnesses in California were caused by a employee who had the highly contagious virus but wasn't sent home from work. Steve Ells, Chipotle's co-chief executive officer, recently told Bloomberg News that the norovirus outbreaks in California and Boston involved breaches of protocol that were established in 2008 after the virus sickened 500 people near Kent State University in Ohio. Norovirus is the leading cause of illness from contaminated foods, affecting as many as 21 million people in the U.S. every year. Its symptoms, including diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain, usually last a couple of days.

Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle, declined to comment.

The grand jury probe isn't the first legal tangle for Chipotle. It's already involved in a U.S. government immigration investigation that started in 2010 and caused the company to fire hundreds of workers. In 2012, prosecutors began probing possible criminal securities-law violations and subpoenaed the company regarding work authorizations.

Chipotle said it's been asked to produce a "broad range of documents" as part of the subpoena in California. "It is not possible at this time to determine whether we will incur, or to reasonably estimate the amount of, any fines, penalties or further liabilities in connection with the investigation pursuant to which the subpoena was issued."

--Bloomberg News

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