Chipotle's Terrible Year Ended With Sales Down 20%

The burrito chain wraps up its worst year ever.

The numbers are in, and they're not good. Chipotle's revenue in 2016 fell by 13.3% compared to the previous year, and sales at restaurants open for more than a year fell by 20.4% — more than a fifth of sales, wiped out in twelve months.

Chipotle customers abandoned the chain following a string of food-borne illnesses linked to its restaurants, which began at the end of 2015. On top of all that, the Tex-Mex chain was hit by higher food costs, and new safety measures resulted in more food waste. In December, CEO Steve Ells described 2016 as "the most challenging year in our history.”

The silver lining is things are getting better, even if they're not yet close to pre-outbreak levels. In October, sales were down 20% compared to the same month a year prior, but that decline was just 1.4% in November. By December, sales were up by 14.7% compared to December 2015, which was the peak of the food safety crisis. "I feel good about the comp trend," Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung told investors on Thursday.

"In the upcoming year we intend to continue to simplify and improve our restaurant operations, utilize creative marketing to rebuild our brand, and further the roll-out of our digital sales efforts," Ells said in a statement. Customers have recently complained about long wait times and problems with cleanliness in stores.

Chipotle expects comparable restaurant sales in 2017 to increase by "high single digits," or under 10%. It also plans to open up to 210 new restaurants, although sales at new locations have been, on average, only 74% of sales at older restaurants.

The good news for customers, as the company tries to restore business: It's not planning on raising its prices anytime soon.

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