Chipotle says key sale figure rose more than expected

Chipotle says a key sales figure rose more than expected in the first quarter as it works to recover from a series of food scares that had sent customers fleeing.

The Denver-based chain said sales rose 17.8 percent at established locations in the first three months of the year, following a 29.7 percent decline in the year-ago quarter. Sales at stores open at least 13 months had turned positive in December after dropping steeply starting in late 2015. The metric is a considered a key indicator because it strips out the volatility of newly opened and closed locations.

Since the E. coli and other food scares that started sickening people around country more than a year ago, Chipotle has pledged to ensure that its food is safe, offered coupons for free burritos, stepped up advertising and introduced a temporary loyalty program to get people back in its stores. The company also added chorizo as a topping to lure more customers, and said Tuesday that it will start testing a dessert next month.

Chipotle CEO Steve Ells described the dessert, bunuelos, as fried tortilla strips with honey and sugar with an apple and caramel dipping sauce.

For the quarter, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. earned $46.1 million, or $1.60 per share, following a loss in the year-ago period. Analysts had expected $1.29 per share, according to FactSet. Total revenue was $1.07 billion, topping the $1.05 billion analysts expected.

The company has continued building new locations, and ended the quarter with 2,291 stores.

Chipotle shares rose more than 3 percent in after-hours trading.