By Noel Randewich
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill (N:CMG) rallied on Wednesday ahead of the company's first quarterly report under a new chief executive hired to turn around the struggling burrito chain.
Chipotle has surged 36 percent since announcing in February that it hired Brian Niccol from Yum Brands Inc's (N:YUM) Taco Bell unit as CEO to win back customers lost after a series of food safety lapses.
Wall Street's recent optimism has focused on what Niccol is likely to do, rather than on Chipotle's performance during his short time at the helm.
Niccol, known for his menu and marketing prowess, could refresh Chipotle's limited offerings by, for instance, adding quesadillas, nachos or margaritas, and he could streamline operations across the chain's 2,408 restaurants.
He replaced Chipotle founder Steve Ells, who failed to put Chipotle back on track following outbreaks of E.coli, Salmonella and norovirus in 2015 that sickened hundreds of U.S. customers and crushed sales. The stock has lost half of its value from record highs just before those mishaps.
Niccol, who will lead his first quarterly conference call with analysts on Wednesday after the stock market closes, took the helm on March 5, with under a month remaining in the quarter.
"It seems unlikely that the quarter really will matter here as the focus will be entirely on new CEO Brian Niccol's thoughts," Quo Vadis Capital President John Zolidis wrote in a client note.
Chipotle's stock was up 2.1 percent at $340.20 at mid-day, outperforming a 0.1 percent rise in the S&P 500. Options activity implied traders expect a 6.6 percent swing in Chipotle's stock by Friday, according to Trade Alerts.
So far, Niccol has brought in a Taco Bell alum to replace long-time Chipotle marketing chief Mark Crumpacker, who in 2017 pleaded guilty to cocaine possession. He also announced plans to cut food and packaging waste and linked executive compensation to sales and margin growth at restaurants.
Under Niccol, Chipotle could also boost technology-enabled sales and increase catering and deliveries, Maxim analyst Stephen Anderson wrote in a report.
Analysts on average expect Chipotle to report a 1.3 percent increase in same-store sales, according to Consensus Metrix. Overall revenue is seen increasing 7.7 percent to $1.15 billion, with non-GAAP earnings per share of $1.57, according to Thomson Reuters data.
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