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BWLD reported 3Q08 same-store sales up 6.8%, with menu pricing up about 3.5%, which implies 3%-plus traffic trends. Cost of sales declined 90 bps, primarily as a result of its increased menu pricing and a decrease in the cost of fresh chicken wings (averaged $1.17 per pound versus last year’s average cost of $1.24 per pound). Management reiterated its FY08 guidance of 15% unit growth, raised its revenue growth to more than 25% (from 20%) and widened its EPS range to up 20%-25% (from 25%). On top of that, the company is now expecting more of the same in FY09 with 15% unit growth, revenue up 25% and EPS up 20%-25%, and management said it is being conservative as a result of the current environment. The FY09 revenue and EPS guidance relies on BWLD’s ability to achieve its 15% unit growth so the company has shifted its strategy to increase the ratio of company-owned units.

Any one of these prior statements is completely unheard of in the current casual dining environment. Most operators are reporting significantly negative traffic trends and increased pressure on the commodity front. No other casual dining company is forecasting 25% EPS growth in FY09 on top of 25% growth in FY08. And, most other casual dining operators are slowing development targets for FY09 and/or shifting more of their growth to franchisees.
  • Taken at face value, all of this should translate into outperformance for BWLD, but I have my concerns outside of the fact that the company opened up the lower end of its prior EPS guidance. For reference, it appears that this lower EPS range and 3Q earnings miss is due largely to higher impairment costs as a result of BWLD’s Don Pablo’s relocations and facility remodels/upgrades (which should begin to normalize in 4Q).
  • In today’s environment, BWLD’s 6.8% comparable sales and 3%-plus traffic growth are nothing short of amazing, but I was surprised that even with such strong top-line results that the company was not able to achieve leverage on the labor line. Management attributed this deleveraging to higher management wages and higher training costs from increased openings and stated that it expects to get leverage on the labor line on a YOY basis in FY09. I am not convinced BWLD will be able to achieve this YOY improvement because they are only expecting modest same-store sales growth in FY09 (versus the 6.8% in 3Q) and the acceleration of company-owned openings will continue into 2009.
  • I also think BWLD’s FY09 guidance is aggressive as its 15% unit growth although more weighted toward company-owned growth still assumes 50 franchise openings, which may be difficult given the current credit environment. Management stated that it thinks it is being conservative but also said that despite the fact that BWLD’s franchisees have a very strong development pipeline, “they have commented that they have seen perhaps a slowing in some of their financing.” BWLD is accelerating its company-owned growth at a time when most of its casual dining competitors are slowing growth. Although BWLD’s recent results are not comparable to other casual dining operators, I never like to see a company significantly increase its capital expenditures as a percent of sales (particularly in today’s difficult environment) because it has the potential to put increased pressure on returns.
  • 4Q08 trends:
    BWLD said its same store sales-to-date in the fourth quarter are up about 3%. This represents a significant slowdown from 3Q08’s 6.8% number and BWLD is facing an easier comparison from 4Q07 of up 3.4% relative to 3Q07’s 8.3% number. Additionally, menu pricing is running up a little over 3.5%, which implies slightly negative traffic.

    BWLD’s YOY commodity favorability as it relates to the cost of fresh chicken wings also appears to be going away in 4Q as October and November wing prices are averaging $1.24 per pound, flat with last year.