Noodles & Co: The Next Big Thing In Casual Dining?

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One of the more important aspects I analyze when I consider restaurant stocks is the popularity and sustainability of the companies' products and services. Ever since I tasted my first burrito from Chipotle Mexican Grill , I knew the company was on to something special; a simple menu, a robust level of food customization, a focus on healthy alternatives, large servings, and quick service made the burrito maker a force to be reckoned with in the fast-casual dining space.

Not surprisingly, the stock has been a force to be reckoned with among investors as well, as shares have climbed more than 600% in the last five years alone.

While Chipotle remains a solid company with viable growth prospects, another restaurant chain operating in the fast-casual segment has recently caught my eye, Noodles & Company . The company, which recently became public in June, has several things in common with Chipotle and appears to be a worthy growth prospect for long-term oriented investors.

Simple yet attractive menu
Unfortunately, I have yet to try the food at Noodles for myself. All of the research I have done thus far, however, indicates that the company's relatively small yet varied assortment of noodles and pasta offerings is appealing to the majority of consumers. In fact, most of the ratings on review sites like Yelp are moderate to favorable, or three and a half stars and up, which is also how Chipotle's chains score for the most part.

The menu at Noodles seems to strike the sweet spot between small and massive in terms of the actual number of offerings. While the company's regular menu setup is difficult to compare to Chipotle's build-it-yourself burrito process, Noodles' menu shares similarities with the menu at Panera Bread .

Similar to Panera, the company offers around 20 signature dishes with a variety of soup/salad offerings. Currently Noodles has 12 main noodles/pasta dishes, five sandwich plates, four salads, and three soup varieties.

Also similar to Chipotle and Panera is the company's focus on fresh ingredients and affordable pricing. All of the company's dishes include a helpful calorie counter and can be specifically tailored to customer specifications. Additionally, Noodles prices all of its dishes close to the $8 price point, which is on par with a burrito from Chipotle and a panini from Panera.

Another similarity that the company has with Chipotle is its current management team. Noodles chairman and CEO Kevin Reddy and president and COO Keith Kinsey both previously occupied high-ranking management positions at Chipotle Mexican Grill. This is extremely important because CEO Reddy, along with COO Kinsey, were at the helm of Chipotle during its early expansion process and had a huge influence in shaping the chain into the success story it is now.

With an aggressive expansion plan already in place at Noodles, the company is set to open 40-42 new company-owned restaurants and an additional six-to-eight franchised locations in 2013 alone; it is a huge positive to know that proven leadership is steering the ship. The company's current total restaurant count of 348 locations pales in comparison to both Chipotle and Panera, whose store counts stand at 1,502 and 1,708 respectively. This indicates that there is still massive potential for Noodles to grow in domestic markets.

The fundamentals
Since Noodles is a relatively small company with a market capitalization of only $1.3 billion versus Chipotle's $12.9 billion valuation and Panera's $4.7 billion valuation, it is not surprising that the company is projected to grow both revenue and earnings per share the fastest in 2014. Current analyst estimates call for revenue growth of 16.3% and EPS of 37.5% in the next fiscal year. These estimates compare favorably to Chipotle's projected revenue growth rate of 16.1% and EPS growth rate of 22% and even more favorably to Panera's expected 10% revenue growth rate and 14.8% EPS growth..

However, this above-average growth comes at a very steep price. Noodles has an incredibly high trailing-12 month P/E ratio of 403 and a lower but still extremely elevated future 12-month P/E ratio of 80.6. These multiples are significantly higher than those of both Chipotle, with a trailing P/E of 44.2 and a forward P/E of 32.42, and Panera, with a trailing P/E of 25.7 and a forward P/E of 20.9.

Although expensive by several metrics, shares of Noodles are projected to offer revenue and EPS growth that outclasses the company's closest competitors, Chipotle and Panera. As the smallest company out of the three in terms of market cap/total store count and with a capable management team already in place, Noodles looks like a viable alternative to the more popular names in the fast- casual dining segment.

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The article Noodles & Co: The Next Big Thing In Casual Dining? originally appeared on

Philip Saglimbeni owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill. The Motley Fool recommends Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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