McDonald's Profit Rise Sharply, Helped By Chipotle Gain

McDonald's , the world's largest restaurant company, on Wednesday said quarterly earnings nearly doubled after recording a large gain for last year's spinoff of the Chipotle Mexican Grill chain.

The hamburger chain also said it would open 800 restaurants in 2007 -- an increase from recent years in which the company scaled back expansion to focus on revitalizing sales at existing restaurants.

"It is a big increase, and I'd like to know where," said Janna Sampson, director of portfolio management at Oakbrook Investments in Lisle, Ill., which owns about 520,000 McDonald's shares.

McDonald's plans to spend $1.9 billion on both the new locations and a revamp of existing outlets.

"McDonald's does need to invest in the future, particularly in places like China," Sampson said. "We do need to see capital investment there for them to gain a foothold in those areas."

McDonald's spokeswoman Lisa Howard said net restaurant openings, which factors in locations that will be closed, would be just 400 in 2007, about the same as 2006. Howard was not able to say where the new outlets will be located but said that would be addressed on a conference call with the company's management later on Wednesday.

Fourth-quarter net income was $1.24 billion, or $1 per share, compared with $608.5 million, or 48 cents a share, a year ago.

Excluding the Chipotle gain, McDonald's earned 61 cents a share, matching a better-than-expected forecast the company gave last week.

Sales rose 11% to $5.63 billion, while sales at hamburger restaurants open at least 13 months, a key retail measure known as same-store sales, rose 6.3%.

Analysts, on average, were expecting revenue of $5.65 billion, according to Reuters Estimates.

McDonald's said last week that sales were boosted by customer demand for both the new chicken Snack Wrap and breakfast offerings in the United States and a Monopoly game promotion in Germany.

In general, analysts expect McDonald's same-store sales increases to moderate this year due to stiff comparisons against strong results in the previous few years.

McDonald's, based in Oak Brook, Illinois, has been on a hot streak since implementing an aggressive turnaround strategy in 2003 that included adding higher-priced menu items such as salads and chicken sandwiches, extending restaurant hours, and allowing customers to pay for meals with credit cards.

The company's turnaround plan also included scaling back its rapid expansion and shedding smaller brands like Chipotle and the Donato's pizza chain so that it could focus on improving results at its flagship burger restaurants.

Earlier this month, the chain said it was now exploring strategic options for its Boston Market chicken chain.

In 2007, McDonald's said it expects beef and chicken costs in Europe to be up slightly. In the United States, chicken costs are also expected to rise while beef costs will be down.

Selling, general and administrative expenses as a percent of revenue are forecast to drop modestly.

The company said it plans to return at least $5 billion to shareholders in the form of share buybacks and dividends in 2007 and 2008.

McDonald's revised its forecast upward last week after reporting global same-store sales in December rose 7.2%, which was better than expected.

McDonald's held an investor webcast at 11:30 am New York time.