Chipotle expects fewer restaurant customers through July, shares fall

Feb 6 (Reuters) - Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc said on Tuesday the number of visitors to its restaurants fell in the last quarter and would continue to decline through the middle of the year sending shares of the burrito chain almost 5 percent lower

Shares initially rose in extended trading after it reported a slightly better-than-expected increase in fourth-quarter sales at established restaurants, boosted by menu price increases, as it works to regain customer trust after food safety lapses in 2015.

But the trend reversed on the company's expectations for customer visits, and shares were down 4.8 percent at $289.84. Chipotle's stock hit a high of more than $742 in 2015, before the E.coli, salmonella and norovirus outbreaks sickened hundreds of U.S. customers and battered its profit and reputation.

Customer visit declines were partially offset by same-store sales gains related to last year's price increases on its menu.

Sales at Chipotle restaurants open at least 13 months were up 0.9 percent for the fourth quarter. Analysts, on average, had expected a gain of 0.7 percent, according to Consensus Metrix.

Net profit was $43.8 million, or $1.55 per share, up from $16 million, or 55 cents per share, a year earlier.

Excluding a 21 cent per share gain related to U.S. tax changes, Chipotle beat Street's profit view by 2 cents, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Restaurant level operating margin increased to 14.9 percent from 13.5 percent a year earlier.

Revenue jumped 7.3 percent to $1.1 billion, to match Wall Street's view.

Chipotle forecast 2018 same-store sales in the low single-digit percentages and said it would open 130 to 150 new restaurants.

It estimated that its effective tax rate for 2018 would be between 30 and 31 percent, versus the 39 percent it previously expected.

The lower tax rate would result in savings of $40 million to $50 million in 2018. It plans to invest more than one-third of those savings in employee benefits, including one-time cash bonuses of up to $1,000 for crew and managers.

The company said it is still searching for a new chief executive to replace founder and CEO Steve Ells.

(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Susan Thomas)