Noodles & Co. Ditches Pasta for Protein-Obsessed Diners

Noodles & Co. introduces Buff Bowls
Noodles & Co.Noodles & Co. is introducing four new meals that ditch pasta in favor of more veggies.

Noodles & Co. (NDLS) is fleshing out its menu, and the new additions have nothing to do with the signature food item that put it on the map. The fast-casual chain Wednesday is introducing Buff Bowls, versions of its four most popular entrees that replace the chain's signature noodles with a double portion of veggies.

The new Buff Bowls -- Japanese Pan with marinated steak, Bangkok Curry with organic tofu, Pesto with pork, and Fresca with grilled chicken -- will be priced at $8.75 apiece. This isn't the first time that Noodles & Co. reaches out to folks interested in non-pasta dishes. There are plenty of noodle-free salads, sandwiches and soups available on the menu. However, this is just another step that the chain is taking to appeal to diners attracted to Noodles & Co.'s freshness but apprehensive about noodles and pasta that are high in carbohydrates.

Whether folks are counting carbs, have gone paleo, or are simply looking for slightly healthier fare, Noodles & Co. knows that it doesn't always have to live up to its name. Given the chain's lumpy financial performance since going public two years ago, it can't afford to stand still in this environment.

Wet Noodle

Noodles & Co. drew plenty of attention when it went public at $18 during the summer of 2013. It was as hot as its spicy Indonesian peanut saute, more than doubling on its first day of trading. Some called it the next Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) since both chains are part of the "fast casual" segment that's faring well with customers trying to step up from fast food without having to deal with the high prices, long waits and suggested tipping practices of casual dining.

%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-884%Unfortunately, it wasn't the next Chipotle. The stock has shed roughly two-thirds of its value since peaking a few days after going public. The shares fell sharply through 2014, and things haven't gotten any better in 2015, with the stock moving lower every single month so far this year.

Noodles & Co. never lived up to the scintillating comparable-restaurant sales of Chipotle. Comps rose a mere 0.2 percent in 2014, failing to keep up with inflation. It hasn't gotten any prettier on the bottom line, with Noodles & Co. falling short of analyst profit targets in three of the past four quarters.

What's Pasta Is Prologue

The new Buff Bowls are being pitched as a "limited time" offering, but it's fair to say that if they prove popular they will probably stick around. Noodles & Co. struggled to grow sales last year, and it's not going to slay the golden goose if hungry patrons gravitate to the four new dishes that pack less than 400 calories and no more than 39 grams of carbs each.

The chain continues to grow quickly despite its near-term challenges. It had 291 company-owned locations when it went public, with another 52 franchised locations. It's now up to 386 company-owned eateries with 53 franchised units.

Noodles & Co. can use the boost. At least three Wall Street analysts cut their price targets on the stock after its most recent disappointing quarter, and history has proven that it's hard for a chain to keep expanding at a heady pace if its store-level popularity is merely treading water. So, yes, Noodles & Co. is widening its offerings, and it's hoping that Buff Bowls also buff up sales when it needs it the most.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.​​