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Ruby Tuesday has many issues, this quarter is just the most recent, but none is more exigent than the reality that for the past year the company has done so much to de-emphasize the company’s core business.  The predominant mode of thought has been for Ruby Tuesday to diversify from its traditional offerings into a trendier “fast casual” concept.  The implications of this strategy are obvious and this quarter shows it. 

RT also is highlighting the risks for companies that are operating in the quadrant of the Hedgeye Restaurant Quadrant chart called NIRVANA.  In order to maintain NIRVANA, and the premium multiple that typically goes with it, the company in question must be operating with positive same-store sales and improving margins; a feat that requires flawless execution and strong business model.

Management attributed the disappointing quarter to bad weather in December and January, compounded by weak trends in the Bar and Grill space.  And added that they recently experienced some non-weather related issues in the south, which is most likely due to gas prices being significantly higher year-over-year and tracking like 2008.  If I can rephrase management’s commentary, what they really meant to say was that a national competitor (Chili’s) in the Bar and Grill space has woken up from a deep slumber! 

Ruby Tuesday posted a disappointing quarter for 3QFY11.  Adjusted EPS of $0.24 was more than 23% below the consensus number of $0.31 (although management said that the weather dilution impact was estimated at $0.03-$0.04 per share in the quarter, putting them flat with last year).  Revenues were roughly in line, surprisingly, as new unit growth was negligible and comps came in at -1.2% versus consensus at +1.9%.   Restaurant operating margin came in at 16.5% versus StreetAccount consensus at 19.3% and 19.5% last year.  The 250 bps decline year-over-year prior year due to the challenge of managing food and labor and brand investments with disappointing same-store sales.

Weather had an impact on the quarter but, it is important to remember, was also a factor last year.  Then, the brand simply performed better and the company managed through weather-related issues.  Management kicked off its commentary on the 3QFY10 by stating that the quarter was the “best sales quarter in the last three years even with the paralyzing winter storms in many of the markets in each month of the quarter and despite lapping the start of our improving trends in last year’s” third quarter. 

For many restaurant companies, not just this one, weather is an excuse only when you need it!  There is a risk of overstating the importance of the storms and missing other important factors.

Firstly, even adjusting for management’s estimation of the weather impact, two-year average trends sequentially slowed for the first time since summer ’09 (20 basis-point slowdown from 4QFY10 to 1QFY10).   That management failed to answer a question regarding the traffic and check components of the -1.2% comp was a little unnerving.   

Secondly, Ruby Tuesday’s business is being heavily impacted by exogenous factors.  During the call there was repeated emphasis by management of the impact from higher gasoline prices and competitor initiatives (Chili’s $6 lunch, Olive Garden’s $6 lunch) as evidence that RT is suffering from a meaningful loss in market share decline.  Specifically, management said, “where lunch is a little bit softer is actually Chili's $6 lunch, Olive Garden's been pounding $6 lunches also, and so that always affects a little bit when everybody's on the compelling value rampage.”  To combat this pressure, management intends to roll out small plates (i.e. a form a discounting) to improve traffic trends.  Almost without exception, it leads to an average check problem (à la CAKE ) and I believe this is also the case for RT. 

Lastly, RT’s margins were very disappointing and management expects margins to recover from here.  I am not as confident as they sound.  Incidentally, during the call when pressed on margin guidance, they didn’t really seem too confident at all!  Coming in at 17% (excluding the franchise acquisition gains and losses and guarantee charges), restaurant operating margins declined 250 basis points year-over-year. 

Going forward, management is anticipating restaurant operating margins to be flat which implies a sequential improvement in ROP margins of ~250 basis points following the sequential decline, this quarter, of the same magnitude.  Additionally, it is worth noting that this quarter’s decline in ROP Margin was exacerbated by a more difficult compare that will be more difficult in 4Q.  Therefore, I believe that management’s guidance of flat ROP margins appears to be aggressive. 

RT did lower guidance significantly in several areas, however.  EPS guidance for FY11 is now $0.74 to $0.82 from $0.76 to $0.86 and same-store sales are projected to come in at flat-to-+1% whereas previous guidance was for “flat-to-+2%”. 

The core Ruby’s Tuesday business is a third-tier casual dining brand that will always have a difficult time competing against the two national brands of Chili’s and Applebee’s.  We remain bullish on what Chili’s is doing to revitalize it business.  As such, it important to realize that Chili’s and other casual dining concepts are taking share from RT and there is no reason to believe that this effect was isolated to this past quarter.  Gasoline prices are high, likely to be even higher come summer, and the customer is being more selective in spending discretionary dollars.  The market share gainers are concepts like Chili’s and I see Ruby Tuesday as a brand that will continue to lose ground.   Look for sentiment to shift in this direction also.  EAT has plenty of room to run in the sentiment stakes.  Names like RT and TXRH are bound to attract some skeptics over the next few quarters.

RT – SNOWED UNDER? BY COMPETITORS ON THE "RAMPAGE"?? - casual dining ratings comp

RT – SNOWED UNDER? BY COMPETITORS ON THE "RAMPAGE"?? - RT pod 1

RT – SNOWED UNDER? BY COMPETITORS ON THE "RAMPAGE"?? - RT POD 2

Howard Penney

Managing Director