The restaurant industry finally seems ready to show improvements in the second half of 2011. Riding on the back of a slowly reviving U.S. economy and the consequent rise in comparable-store sales, restaurant operators have managed to post improved results in recent months. We expect restaurant companies to continue delivering better numbers in the upcoming quarter over the year-earlier period.
A recent survey by the National Restaurant Association revealed that the Restaurant Performance Index (RPI), measuring the health and outlook on the U.S. restaurant industry, was 100.7 in February, up 0.4% from January. The RPI gain in February connotes improvements in same-store sales and customer traffic.
The Current Situation Index, which measures comparable-store sales, traffic counts, labor costs and capital expenditures in the restaurant industry, was 99.4 in February, up 0.9% sequentially. The Expectations Index, which measures restaurant operators’ six-month’s outlook on the above indicators, stood at 101.9, up slightly from 101.8 in the prior month. Restaurant operators’ capital spending plans rose to the highest level in 40 months reaffirming their optimistic outlook on the industry.
Looking ahead, we see solid top-line trends. International travel to the U.S. also continues to grow. We believe well-positioned companies will drive above-average traffic trends and enjoy pricing power, leading to same-store sales increases in 2011. The economy is continuing to improve, albeit at a modestly lower rate, but a sluggish labor market, over-supply of restaurants in the industry, higher gasoline prices and food cost inflation may weigh on industry profitability.
Restaurants have been trying to win back cash-conscious guests by revamping promotions, offering discounts and focusing on value-for-meal menus. However, the tendency to offer discounts has been moderating. We remain cautiously optimistic over the near-to-medium term, with consumers continuing to look for value, distinct dining experiences, as well as convenience and enhanced menu deals in a gradually improving economic backdrop.
Drivers of the Restaurant Industry
The U.S. restaurant industry consists of Quick Service Restaurants (QSR), Midscale Restaurants, Casual Dining, Non-Commercial and Fine Dining/Upscale restaurants.
In the midst of what is considered to be a moderate recovery, there are three potential drivers of net income growth for the restaurant industry: unit expansion, same-store sales, cost-containment efforts and marketing tools.
Unit Expansion: In response to an economy that lacks luster, most of the companies have slowed their pace of restaurant openings. However, with the expected resurgence of consumer confidence, companies are turning back slowing to unit expansion, though not aggressively.
BJ’s Restaurants Inc. (BJRI) plans to open 12 to 13 restaurants in fiscal 2011 compared with 10 restaurants in fiscal 2010. In the long run, there still exists room to open at least 300 outlets. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (CMG) plans to open 135–145 new restaurants in 2011, maintaining a growth rate of 13%.
In fact, the companies are set to explore international markets. While Chipotle is primarily concentrating on European countries including U.K., Germany and France, Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. (BWLD) will expand its overseas footprint by opening more than 50 company-owned and franchised restaurants in Canada over the next 5 years. Another restaurant, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro Inc. (PFCB) has also eyed the Canadian market.
Darden Restaurants Inc. (DRI) announced a formal area development agreement with Americana Group to spread its operations in the Middle East. Several food chains including Denny’s Corp. (DENN), Pollo Tropical of Carrols Restaurant (TAST) and Starbucks Corporation (SBUX) intend to tap the fast-growing Indian market. McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) and Yum! Brands Inc. (YUM) already have considerable coverage in India. Companies like Yum! Brands, McDonald’s and California Pizza Kitchen (CPKI) are aggressively expanding in China to capitalize on the fast-paced economic growth in Asia.
Same-Store Sales: The second driver consists of menu price increases and traffic counts. Restaurant operators reported positive same-store sales and customer traffic growth in recent months. Growth in menu price has accelerated, as per figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, we remain cautious about same-store sales growth in the months ahead due to rising food costs and the consequent increase in menu prices, which could detract traffic.
Cost-Containment Efforts: Some cost cuts have been achieved through integrated information systems, including point-of-sale, automated kitchen display, labor-scheduling and theoretical food cost systems.
Marketing Tools: Social media as a marketing tool has created ripples in the industry. As per National Restaurant Association, 8 out of 10 operators support the view that social media will become an important marketing tool in the future. Hence, they are likely to incorporate Facebook, online review sites, Twitter and blogs into their marketing mix over the next two years.
With the economic outlook improving, the fortunes of a number industry players have turned around. These companies promise long-term growth opportunities.
- Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD) offers investors one of the strongest growth stories in this space. Buffalo Wild Wings had also been able to consistently deliver positive comps during the height of market turmoil.
- With consistent earnings and a healthy balance sheet, McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) provides relative safety and moderate growth opportunities in the current scenario, as well as exposure to faster-growing international markets. McDonald’s U.S. comparable-store sales have been showing continued uptrend since the last few months on strong sales of beverage as well as core menu products.
- Boasting a unique position in the hyper-competitive bar and grill segment, yet another stock, BJ’s Restaurants (BJRI) offers investors a strong growth story with a viable business strategy and debt-free balance sheet. The company delivered impressive fourth quarter results in terms of earnings per share and same-store sales growth.
Improved Californian Market
The core California market, which was badly hit by the recession resulted in a high rate of unemployment and weak consumer confidence, has started to turn around. We see plenty of growth opportunities in the California and Texas markets.
Job Growth in the Sector
The restaurant industry is the major contributor to job growth in the U.S. According to the National Restaurant Association, Texas and Florida will likely show the strongest job growth over the next 10 years. As a point of reference, McDonalds itself plans to hire as many as 50,000 workers on April 19.
Key to Success
Additionally, restaurants are accessing different means to plug the problems of heightened competition in a somewhat over-supplied domestic market. Companies continue to reduce their energy consumption and are remodeling their restaurants to give an up-market feel. They are rolling out new, smaller prototypes to augment the perception of value and drive traffic thereby reducing construction and occupancy costs to enhance returns on capital.
While Darden has embarked on an extensive remodeling plan for its core brands like Olive Garden and Red Lobster to spur their same-store sales, Chipotle Mexican Grill is introducing typical Southeast Asian cuisine coupled with naturally raised food, for which it is well known. Chipotle is trying to check how its model works with other cuisines. If successful, we believe, the company will execute the idea on a broader basis. Chipotle was also unruffled by the economic slowdown. The company is well positioned to expand rapidly while generating improved earnings, margins and returns on invested capital.
The introduction of small plates or individual appetizers by several chains such as California Pizza Kitchen, BJ’s Restaurants and Buffalo Wild Wings has already tasted success. Limited Time Offers are also on the rise following the success of Buffalo Wild Wings and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc. (RRGB).
Additionally, most of the companies are transforming to more a franchise-centric model to reduce the volatility in earnings and increase cash flow generation. However, Panera Bread Co. (PNRA) bread is slightly more inclined toward company-owned unit openings, which speak of the company’s fundamental strength and makes us optimistic on the stock.
Breakfast Menus a Key Driver
Breakfast has accounted for nearly 60% of the U.S. restaurant industry and remains a key driver of traffic growth in recent years. Over the past five years, morning meal traffic has increased at an average rate of 2% per year, while lunch visits were flat, and supper traffic declined 2% per year on average.
We can thereby conclude that growth potential remains mainly in the QSR markets. Leveraging the trend, Wendy’s (WEN) has expedited its new breakfast menu in different markets. The company targets to have about 1,000 restaurants serving its new breakfast by the end of this year.
According to an analysis by NPD, which has a ten-year projection of foodservice trends based on aging, population growth and trend momentum, servings of breakfast sandwiches are projected to outpace the industry’s growth forecast. Annual servings per capita of breakfast sandwiches at foodservice are expected to jump from 11 in 2004 to 14 in 2019.
Currently, there are a number of stocks in the restaurant industry universe with a Zacks #1 Rank (Strong Buy). These include Einstein Noah Restaurant Group Inc. (BAGL) and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers (RRGB). Stocks like Brinker International Inc. (EAT), Yum! Brands Inc. (YUM) and Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. (BWLD) currently retain a Zacks #2 Rank (Buy).
Higher Food and Gasoline Prices
Food costs account for about one-third of restaurant sales. Wholesale food prices have been on the rise this year. Prices of corn, wheat, coffee and other commodities have also trended up mainly due to a decline in the U.S. and Russian production prospects, compelling many restaurants to raise prices on some of their products.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects the average price of food in 2011 to be 4% higher than the previous year. Food prices rose 3.9% in February this year, primarily due to strong winter in some of the highly fertile Southern states, such as Florida and Texas.
It was a difficult season even at the wholesale level, recording the highest price increase in 36 years. Additionally, after the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, prices of corn have escalated further. Dairy and beef prices witnessed a steep rise on a year-over-year basis.
With more expensive food and a spike in gasoline prices, people will have less disposable income and prefer to dine at home. In our pinion, most of the restaurants will try to safeguard their margins by passing the cost hike onto consumers. While big and established chains like McDonalds, Yum!, Starbucks will survive the price increases due to their broad customer base and larger economies of scale, smaller chains will feel the heat of rising commodity costs.
Steep Competition and Promotional Offers
Competition among casual dining restaurants is expected to remain fierce with respect to price, service, location and concept in order to drive traffic. Environment is still value-sensitive. High discount rates applied to menu prices in order to battle difficult economic conditions are resulting in price wars among competitor companies.
Hence, the failure of any promotional offer will put pressure on the company’s same-restaurant sales growth. Dishes featured in the Olive Garden promotion, especially in February, failed to be accretive to the company’s growth leading to flat same store sales, 1.5 percentage points below its own estimate.
Shut Down of Regional Restaurant Chains
The majority of independent U.S. restaurant units are closing, while chain restaurants remained steady. Large national chains, which attract mainly higher-income visitors are performing better than regional restaurants as upscale-customers are recovering faster than the lower-income group.
Lag in Traffic Growth Barring Fast Casual Restaurants
According to a recent NPD foodservice market research report, visits to the leading fast casual restaurant chains grew 17% over the last three years while the rest of the industry experienced its steepest traffic declines. However, fast casual unit availability increased 12% since 2007. Visits to the leading fast casual restaurant chains, like Chipotle, Noodles & Company, and Panera, were up 6% for the year ending December 2010 versus a year ago. This compares with a 1% decline in total industry visits for the same time period.
Given the lack of overall earnings catalysts, it is difficult to be enthusiastic about a number of restaurant stocks. There are still quite a few names with a lackluster outlook. These include McDonald’s, Darden, The Cheesecake Factory Inc. (CAKE) and California Pizza Kitchen Inc., all of which retain the Zacks #3 Rank (short-term Hold). Ruby Tuesday Inc. (RT) and McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurants Inc. (MSSR) retain Zacks #4 Rank (short-term Sell).
The restaurant industry is not still immune to uncertainties in the macro economy. Companies appear to be in a good position to take advantage of an improved economy as evident from their capital budgets. Easy comparisons from the prior year will likely place this year’s performance in a brighter light.
On the consumer front, while they were previously struggling to survive in a recessionary environment, they are now grappling with steeply rising commodity costs, a still-high unemployment rate and dreary wage gains. These factors are still compelling consumers to tighten their belts. In our opinion, a set of focused efforts will help restaurant companies operate with a cautiously optimistic outlook in 2011.
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