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Chipotle will have a hard time winning back millennial moms, restaurant analyst says

Even though sales might be improving at Chipotle Mexican Grill, which experienced an E. coli outbreak last year, don't expect high profit margins from the restaurant chain anytime soon, one analyst warned CNBC.

Chipotle is struggling to bring back what used to be one of its most influential customers: the millennial mom, Morningstar restaurant analyst R.J. Hottovy said Thursday on "Power Lunch."

"[The moms] have found other options in the fast-casual space — healthier options, and lots of these are private players," Hottovy said.

Analytics firm Fishbowl recently published its annual list of emerging brands to watch in the restaurant space, which included publicly traded Shake Shack but also many other options like salad chain Sweetgreen and Mediterranean-focused Cava Grill.

And don't forget Panera Bread, which has become famous for its rebranding strategy of late and ditching of artificial ingredients.

Chipotle restaurant workers fill orders for customers on April 27, 2015 in Miami.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images
Chipotle restaurant workers fill orders for customers on April 27, 2015 in Miami.

It's going to take "a lot of promotional activity" to get customers back through Chipotle's doors, Hottovy said. Loyalty programs and burrito giveaways are resulting in much higher expenses — a sacrifice the company must be willing to make and investors need to accept, he said.

As an investor, "this has to be baked into your investment outlook ... I don't think it will be the same Chipotle we once saw. You have to reset your expectations."

January was a good month for the Mexican-inspired, fast-casual chain, with same-store sales — a metric closely watched for retail stocks by Wall Street — up 24 percent. "February was weak for a lot of restaurant chains, but March has bounced back solidly," Hottovy said.

As of Thursday, shares of Chipotle are up more than 15 percent for the year and have risen about 5 percent over the past six months.

"Numbers are improving," Hottovy said. But he'd still like to see Chipotle shift its focus back to "guest experience" and do more with technology to satisfy younger consumers.