EAT - To Have.... And Have not..........

To Have....
EAT - Brinker International
On a consolidated basis, Brinker's brands gained momentum in the first calendar quarter of 2008. Importantly, the core Chili's concept (excluding the impact of California, Nevada, Florida, and Arizona) comparable restaurant sales improved to 3.5%. For the last three quarters, Chili's has outpaced Knapp Track, the industry benchmark, widening the gap in the most recent quarter.

And Have not...
SNS - Steak 'n Shake
For the first calendar quarter of the 2008, SNS same-store sales declined 6.3%. Importantly, this consists of a decline in traffic of 8.8%, partially offset by 2.5% increase in average check. The increase in the average check was due primarily to a 4.0% menu price increase that was offset by higher redemption of coupons. The good news is that this is an improvement from a 9.5% decline in last quarter. The bad news is the conference call was a disaster and the company appears in disarray.
RT - Ruby Tuesday
Ruby's fiscal third quarter ended March 4, 2008 and the company reported company-operated same-store restaurant sales decreased 12.7%, while same-restaurant sales at domestic franchise Ruby Tuesday restaurants decreased 12.0%, versus a decrease of 1.0% and an increase of 1.8%, respectively last year.
CHUX - O'Charley's
For the first fiscal quarter of 2008, O'Charley's same-store sales decreased by 4.7%, driven by an 8% decline in traffic and a 3.6% increase in average check. Average check for company-operated restaurants in the first quarter was $12.97, including dinner.
Ninety Nine reported same-store sales decreased 2.2%, which was the result of a 3.8% increase in average check offset by a 5.8% decrease in guest counts. Average check for Ninety Nine in the first quarter was $15, including dinner.
For Stoney River, same store sales declined 3.2% in the quarter as an 8.3% increase in average check was offset by a 10.7% decline in guest counts. Average check in the quarter was $47.59.

SBUX - Part three of a three act play!

The drama that is about to unfold for Starbucks is a show that we have seen many times before. The three companies that come to mind first are Wal-Mart, McDonald's, and Coca Cola. The first act is played out by the dominant founder overseeing a tiny company through a very rapid growth phase into a dominant global brand. Act II begins to unfold when the market forces and the competition alters the competitive landscape, the first financial misstep happens, and the company's valuation collapses. At this point in the play, shareholders get very angry and demand change. The patriarch of the company is reluctant or slow to change, which is the beginning of the end. Usually, the drama ends with there being two or three CEOs before the company gets it right.

It was not long ago that I wrote about the company's dramatic downturn in its fundamental performance, and how it's likely to create issues that it never had before as a public company--shareholder activism. While it's a small position, Trian has filed a 13F on Starbucks. Trian also owns large stakes in Kraft Foods, Cheesecake Factory, Tiffany & Co. and Cadbury-Schweppes.

Why Starbucks?

First, the global growth potential for the Starbucks brand is enormous.

Second, I believe that the Starbucks brand would be a valuable addition to many different global food and beverage companies. If the financial performance does not improve soon, losing control of the company is a real possibility. Additionally, many private equity firms would love to own the company.

From this point forward, every piece of bad news means we are one step closer to some real drama.

WMT - Is WMT going after the restaurant industry?

According to the FT - WMT will be pursuing a passion for fresh and delicious food and the highest level of customer service in small neighborhood grocery stores. The 15,000 sq ft Marketside neighborhood stores will be dedicated to helping our customers answer the question 'What's for dinner?'.

Is this a restaurant meal occasion?

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The Death of the Knock Off Shoe

Recent nuggets I've picked up through Research Edge's macro work and my team's industry sources have planted a fast-growing seed in my mind that the mid-priced-knockoff shoe business is about to be taken outside behind the barn and shot.

If you've been following my footwear postings, you know the drill. Years of oversupply in China and margin extraction from US brands has reached its tipping point. Now factory margins are close to zero (down from 10%) and capacity growth is going from +5% to flat at best. Now the supply chain squeeze hits the US brands, who in turn stick it to the retailers (or at least they go down swinging).

Well here's a couple of nuggets for you...
1. For the first time since the 1980s, factories located in Southern China are telling mid-tier brands (and the sourcing agents that represent them) that the long-standing $19.99 price point simply can not hold anymore at the current margin structure. The factories are actually turning away business. This is unheard of, and a major consideration for mass market retailers (WMT, TGT, and the family footwear channel).

2. The Chinese government set into motion a mandatory initiative to hold factories responsible for issuing back pay for vacations that were never given. This is causing a financial chain reaction, causing many factories to either close or take a huge hit. Anyone who thinks that China will refrain from passing this through the supply chain is not keeping their eye on the ball.

Simply put, brands matter again. A lot. Is it any wonder that Payless went from 80% private label down to 60% (and on its way to 25%)? Does it make sense now why Target did a deal with Nike for an offshoot of the Converse brand and took down private label but took UP footwear pricing in the stores?

We'd be very weary of any brand that is simply 'average.' In this environment, 'average' is lethal.

Footwear Sales Bouncing Off Bottom?

I think that athletic footwear sales are bouncing to some degree off the bottom, as the 1, 2, and 3-year trend is in positive territory for the first time in 10 weeks. While trends are only marginally positive, I'd note that recent head-fakes were driven by inventory clearing activity. But this time, inventories appear squeaky clean.

That means less discounting, and a well-needed glimmer of hope for a down-and-out industry. The chart below from NPD Fashionworld (data I've found to be statistically significant) shows the y/y change in average price point spike to a three week trend of about 8%. That hasn't happened in years. Yes, compares are easy, but even on a 2 and 3-year run rate the numbers are looking more stable.

This synchs perfectly with comments from a source of ours who buys off-price merchandise at a relatively large US retailer -- "I've got money burning a hole in my pocket, and not enough product to buy." A disproportionate portion of these buys usually come from Sporting Goods retailers. That sends us a positive sign about the footwear inventory position at the Dick's, Sports Authority's, and Hibbetts' of the world. It also reaffirms what we already know -- that the major brands are showing some restraint as it relates to overbuilding product.

Let's not get too excited here -- the longer term trend here is still likely to turn this industry upside down (see past postings). But such change is not linear.

This is something to watch.


As I mentioned earlier, CKR has said that it will not respond to the current value menu movement and stated on its last conference call that it will in most cases stay away from the bottom feeder $0.99-product person, which isn't [their] bailiwick.

In conjunction with that comment, the CEO said that he is more focused on driving sales than he is on traffic as traffic is not a measure of customers. It's not a customer count mechanism. It just tells you how many transactions you had during the day or the year so if you and I go into lunch together and I say, I'll buy, that's one transaction although it's two customers.

He went on to say, I think transactions are really not all that relevant and almost a misnomer. I am more concerned with how many people we have in the restaurants and how many transactions we ring up on the register. By the time, the CEO ended his longwinded response, we were not exactly clear on what he was saying, but in our view, it is never a good idea to move your focus away from driving traffic, and in today's current economic environment, that might mean driving more transactions at lower price long as the customers keep coming!

Taking the other side transaction counts is MCD. MCD senior management said on its last conference call that MCD took market share, and we measure that on traffic, as you know, not on sales. And our focus is on traffic, because that's the critical component. If we get them in the restaurants, we'll figure out how to get the successful average check from them down the road.

We understand that there needs to be a balance between driving traffic and discounting (and protecting margins), but we think MCD wins this argument with significantly higher average unit volumes.

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