By Lisa Baertlein
Oct 17 (Reuters) - Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc onThursday said better-than-expected sales at establishedrestaurants boosted quarterly profits and signaled it may raiseprices in the middle of 2014 to offset higher food costs,sending shares up 7.7 percent.
The fast-growing burrito chain has been reluctant toincrease menu prices despite higher costs for ingredients suchas California avocados and salsa. Executives said they firstwant to secure ample supplies of natural meats and switch tocooking oil and tortillas that do not contain geneticallymodified organisms (GMOs).
Chipotle's sales at restaurants open at least 13 months, aclosely watched gauge of industry performance, were up 6.2percent for the latest quarter, more than the average analystestimate of 4.7 percent compiled by Consensus Metrix.
Executives from the Denver-based chain said visits to itsrestaurants increased when its animated film and arcade-stylegame about sustainable food production went viral on Facebook,Twitter and YouTube.
Chipotle was the first major U.S. restaurant chain todisclose which of its ingredients contain GMOs - which arebecoming increasingly controversial as more diners seekinformation about what's in the food they eat.
Third-quarter net income at Chipotle increased 15 percentfrom the year earlier to $83.4 million, or $2.66 per share. Thatfell short of analysts' average estimate of $2.78 per share,according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S, as higher food, labor andrent costs squeezed margins.
Chipotle narrowed its full-year forecast for same-restaurantsales to mid-single-digit percentage growth. The Denver-basedchain previously said it expected low- to mid-single-digitpercentage same-restaurant sales growth for 2013.
For 2014, it forecast low single-digit percentage growth,excluding menu price increases.
Analysts say Chipotle needs mid-single-digit percentagegrowth of same-restaurant sales to protect profits.
Shares of Chipotle gained $33.72 to $472.79 in after-markettrading.
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