Can These Restaurant Stocks Beef Up Your Portfolio?

Can These Restaurant Stocks Beef Up Your Portfolio?

According to USDA statistics published at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association website, between 1985 and 2009 average annual per capita consumption of beef dropped from 79.2 lbs. to 61.1 lbs. In the meantime, chicken consumption soared from 52.1 lbs. to 80.0 lbs. The reasons for this shift are chicken costs much less per pound than beef and is viewed by many consumers as a healthier protein choice.

Does this mean we should shy away from stocks in restaurant companies specializing in serving beef and focus on those that serve outstanding chicken dishes such as the one I recently wrote about, Fiesta Restaurant Group, that owns the Pollo Tropical brand?

Not necessarily. According to analysis of restaurant sales in 2012 from GuestMetrics published in, not only did sales of dishes with protein (meat or seafood) grow at a faster pace than non-protein dishes, but within the protein category, beef had the greatest share gain. Given this apparently comeback of beef-based dishes this begs the question which companies should Foolish investors look into to take advantage of this trend?

The successful transformation of a familiar brand
Red Robin Gourmet Burgers operates 339 company-owned Red Robin restaurants, five Red Robin's Burger Works, and also has 133 franchised locations as of June 30. The company calls itself "the gourmet burger expert."

Second quarter results for the company were as satisfying as its burgers. Total revenues rose 6.5% compared to the same quarter last year. The all-important metric of comparable store sales showed a 4.3% increase. Same store sales have now risen for 12 consecutive quarters, a great performance in what continues to be as Red Robin CEO Steve Carley said, "a tough casual dining environment."

The challenging business environment Mr. Carley spoke of was reflected in the 0.7% decrease in guest counts for the quarter. The sales gains were from the average guest check increasing 5%. Red Robin achieved a more than two percentage point increase in restaurant-level operating profit, to 23.3%, as food and beverage costs were lower. Net income rose by 44% to $11.1 million.

The economic recovery accounts for part of Red Robin's recent success. Strategic initiatives that management calls its brand transformation were also major contributors. Components of the transformation include cost cutting, testing new menu items and restaurant interior designs, and serving gourmet burgers on plates rather than in the company's traditional baskets. Also, management set an objective of increasing alcohol sales and attracting more adult diners. All of this being said, Foolish investors shouldn't forget that everyone loves a good steak.

Steak-ing a claim on profitability
Ruth's Hospitality Group has 63 company-owned Ruth's Chris Steak House restaurants, 19 company-owned Mitchell's Fish Market restaurants and 74 franchised Ruth's Chris Steak House locations as of June 30.

The company reported that second quarter sales were up 4.3% compared to the second quarter of 2012. Company-owned same store sales for Ruth's Chris locations rose a healthy 4.6%, as guest traffic increased 2.1% and the average check was up 2.5%.

The company's margins looked good in the second quarter. Food and beverage costs as a percentage of restaurant sales dropped a full 180 basis points to 30.4% as the cost of beef declined and the company executed a menu price increase. Restaurant operating expenses also went down by 74 basis points.

The higher sales and efficient cost management -- and some good fortune regarding the cost of beef -- resulted in operating income of $10.9 million which was 10.7% of sales compared to 9.2% last year. Net income was up an outstanding 33% year-over-year.

Definitely no shrimpy profits on this company's barbie
Bloomin' Brands is an interesting company because of the diversity of its brands which include Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill, and Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar. This is also a large company with 1,276 company-owned restaurants and 207 franchises in 48 states and 20 countries.

For the second quarter ending June 30, Bloomin' Brands reported that total revenue increased 3.9 percent compared to 2012's second quarter. Revenue also topped $1 billion. Customer traffic was up 1.2% and comparable sales at company-owned restaurants rose 2%. Not stellar results, but given the current unsettled economic situation, not too bad.

The company was pleased that comparable store sales have now gone up for 13 quarters in a row. The second quarter increase was the result of both higher customer traffic and menu price increases. Steaks were the star performers: comparable store sales at Outback Steakhouse locations rose 2.8% and Fleming's Prime Steakhouse locations achieved a 3.8% increase.

Restaurant-level operating margins improved by 30 basis points and general and administrative costs dropped by more than $7 million. The sales gains and tightly controlled costs brought about a 39% increase in income from operations to nearly $68 million.

What we learned
Red Robin's second quarter results were a continuation of an upward trend. The company had reported excellent full year 2012 results that included a 6.9% revenue increase and a nearly 38% increase in net income. Red Robin has found the right menu mix of offering burgers at various price points and has greatly improved its operating efficiency.

Bloomin' Brands' strategy of diversified restaurant concepts allows important strategic flexibility in regard to where the company opens new locations. An area with a high concentration of Italian restaurants, for example, might still have unmet demand for a good steakhouse.

Ruth's Chris steaks are meat-lovers' idea of heaven, but dining there is an expensive proposition. The company's continued growth depends on consumers feeling prosperous enough to splurge on a great meal. If you believe that the economic recovery is sustainable, Ruth's Hospitality Group's growth should also be sustainable because of the company's food quality and operational efficiency.

Foolish investors should always do their own research when making investment decisions but these three stocks are definitely worth looking into for the reasons highlighted in this article.

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