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Chipotle turnaround still slower than expected

Sarah Whitten

It looks like Chipotle Mexican Grill isn't headed for a turnaround any time soon.

The burrito chain said net income fell to $7.8 million, or 27 cents a share, from earnings of $144.9 million, or $4.59 a share in the third quarter of last year.

The earnings in the latest period included a pretax impairment charge of $14.5 million, or 29 cents a share, and a pretax revenue deferral tied to the Chiptopia loyalty program of $11.5 million, or 23 cents a share.

Revenue in the latest period tumbled 14.8 percent to $1.04 billion, shy of the $1.09 billion analysts were expecting, according to Thomson Reuters.

Chipotle shares initially rose during aftermarket trading on Tuesday, but quickly reversed and were recently trading down about 2.3 percent.

"While we are on the road to recovery, we are not satisfied," Steve Ells, CEO of Chipotle, said during a conference call on Tuesday.

Same-store sales fell 21.9 percent in the third quarter, a deeper drop than the 18.2 percent Wall Street estimated. In addition, transactions fell 15.2 percent during the quarter.

The addition of chorizo to Chipotle's menu accounted for 7 percent of sales for the restaurant in the quarter, according to Mark Crumpacker, the company's chief marketing and development officer. He noted during an earnings call that 84 percent of customers who tried the new menu item reported that they liked it and 70 percent said that it increase their desire to eat at Chipotle.

"It's not stabilized much," Will Slabaugh, a restaurant analyst with Stephens, said of Chipotle on CNBC's "Closing Bell" on Tuesday. "We've seen it slowly improve, but not at quite the rate where people thought it was going to."

Chipotle continues to struggle to win back customers despite numerous promotions, freebies and a temporary rewards program. Shares of the company are down more than 36 percent over the past year.

"Even after the relative success of this summer's loyalty program, Chiptopia, Chipotle still has a long way to go to win back customers from the ongoing food safety scares starting this time last year," Kate Hogenson, strategic loyalty consultant at Kobie Marketing, told CNBC ahead of the earnings report. "The rewards of Chiptopia were certainly there, with such a high return on investment for high frequency customers, but the program was limited in what it could do from a loyalty perspective since it was temporary."

The company reported that 6 million people signed up for Chiptopia and 2.5 million earned rewards. A whopping 85,000 people are slated to receive free catering from Chipotle for successfully completing the burrito chain's reward program, a value of around $240. That comes out to about $20.4 million in free catering.

While free meals and catering were strong incentives, Hogenson noted that Chipotle's rewards program could have benefited from integrating mobile payment, exclusive discounts and specialized content for its loyalty members.

"Regular visitors become loyal customers through high customer engagement, superior service and stand-out experiences — not through discounts alone," she said. "And it's true brand loyalty that keeps customers coming back."