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Bert Vivian, PFCB’s new co-CEO as of earlier this month, presented at an investor conference this morning and spoke rather generally about current trends in casual dining. While his commentary is entertaining, he did not paint a very optimistic picture. Below are some of his comments (I am paraphrasing):
Casual dining has been ugly and it is going to continue to get uglier.

The lights went out on December retail same-store sales…This is not just a retail problem.

Yesterday, RUTH reported that comparable sales declined over 18% for the fourth quarter. Don’t be surprised by these types of numbers. Whatever numbers you are expecting for the industry should most likely be ratcheted down.

During the fourth quarter, particularly in December, people had a reason to go out shopping. When people are out, they occasionally also go out to eat. We see no reason for people to go out in 1Q. It is going to be a cold 1Q in retail and restaurants. There is nothing to change people’s behaviors in the next few months.

This is a tough sales environment. 2009 for our group is going to be a throw away.

There is no need to be in a hurry with this group. There is nothing we see that makes us think business is going to take off any time soon.

The casual dining group’s decline in development in 2009 is likely going to stretch out into 2010 because once the hammers stop, it is tough to get them going again. (This might have been the most positive thing Bert said as it relates to really fixing one of the biggest fundamental problems facing the group as a whole).

Below are some of Bert’s more positive comments:

In the past, PFCB has used its free cash flow to build new restaurants. With the slowdown in development, this is not going to be true for this year and most likely for the next few years. What do we do with our free cash flow? (Bert answered his own question, saying that PFCB will most like use its cash to pay down debt and buy back shares.)

The sun will shine again on this group…We just don’t know when.

The current market cap of all of the higher-end steak players combined suggests that people are not going to eat steak anymore…I am going to continue to eat steak.

People are going to continue to eat out. The casual dining business is not going away. There are going to be casualties, but there are also going to be survivors. 2009 is going to be a tough year, but PFCB will be one of the survivors and should come out a stronger company.