SBUX - Older, Bolder Brews Return

Starbucks posted on its My Starbucks Idea website, that it is returning some of its bolder brews to its stores on an all day basis in response to customers' demands. This is only worth mentioning because there was such a huge marketing push behind the company's launch of its new, smoother Pike Place Roast brew back in April. The company premiered the roast with free sampling and by offering it in new (and somewhat controversial) cups.

Additionally, Pike Place was outlined as one of SBUX's turnaround initiatives to improve the customer's coffee experience. After launching Pike Place, SBUX had stopped brewing a second roast in the afternoon so the company will now resume brewing an additional bolder coffee along with it.

Although SBUX also stated that overall [Pike Place] has had impressive success, this customer demand for more of the familiar, bolder roasts might signal that Pike Place is not providing the sales lift management had hoped for. We will learn more about Pike Place's initial performance when the company reports it 3Q08 results as the brand was only launched at the beginning of the quarter. On a more positive note, it is impressive to see such a quick response on the part of management to meet its customers' requests, which is reflective of the company's renewed customer focus.

US Market Levees That Need To Hold Here...

On Wednesday, I said I'd be scared if I were you...

Here are the levels to watch:

1. The SP500 level i issued wednesday, 1322
2. The VIX, breaking out through 22.21
3. The US Dollar Index breaking the 73.04 line

Gold works today. So does cash. Manage risk; this is not a time to take it.

EYE ON POPULISM: Would this Vote Have Gone This Way Under the Employee Free Choice Act ?

At Research Edge we have our Eye on a potential Union comeback in this country. In a close vote, security guards at MGM's Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas voted against the International Union of Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America. Of course, consistent with our democratic traditions, the vote was conducted through the secret ballot. Obama and a majority in Congress have indicated they would pass the Employee Free Choice Act which would effectively replace the secret ballot with an open petition. My view is that union elections become less free under this measure and in this case the vote would've been radically different.

Todd Jordan
Managing Director

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Gaming and Taxes: The Never Ending Battle

Boom or bust, State governments will continue to pump water from the spring, in this case extract tax dollars from their favorite well: the casino industry. There is a battle raging in Nevada on how to close the growing budget gap. The Teachers Union originally proposed a large increase in the gaming tax but compromised with some casino companies to offer an increase in the hotel tax. Terry Lanni, MGM CEO, opposes an increase in the hotel or gaming tax and suggested raising the payroll tax among other measures. Get used to this folks. Unfortunately, most state governments were unwilling to curtail spending growth during the most recent economic boon. With receipts likely going lower in many states, governments will need to find more revenue. We've watched this sitcom before and it's not very funny. If the gaming industry is already paying its fair share , its share is likely to get fairer. Whether it's Nevada, New Jersey, or the riverboat markets, someone's taxes are going higher. There is a break in the clouds, however. New markets are born out of the economic bust periods due to, you guessed it, the quest for new tax revenue sources.


First the good news: Las Vegas property level EBITDA margins have expanded 10 out of the last 15 years and were 4% higher in 2007 than the average over that period. The bad news: Mean Reversion is probably rearing its inevitable head. Why are we concerned about mean reversion? The impressive margin expansion was driven primarily by the hotel and the food and beverage product lines (casino margin has been stable) which should contract first and most dramatically as consumer spending slows and probably recedes. The following chart clearly shows the relevant trends.

In 2007, rooms and F&B contributed 40% of revenues and 38% of total departmental profits in Las Vegas, big contributors for sure. Room rates are already under pressure and casinos won't drop occupancy to hold rate. ADR's are the highest margin revenue source in Vegas. Do you see where I'm going? I'm not sure F&B traffic and pricing can hold up in this environment either. Restaurant traffic certainly hasn't across the country.

My partner Keith McCullough constantly reminds me that context is not just the last few years. Context in this case is at least 15 years. Unfortunately, when it comes to margin mean reversion, this context is not very comforting.

Todd Jordan
Managing Director

CKR - CEO Responds to Shareholder Concerns

CKR dedicated a big portion of its presentation at its annual meeting today to addressing the concerns communicated in Ramius LLC's letter to CEO Andrew Puzder. To recount, the letter called for the company to:

1.) Significantly reduce operating costs
2.) Shrink the capital spending plan to improve free cash flow

Mr. Puzder stated that before his tenure as CEO began in FY01, that the prior management had significantly reduced G&A expenses (through substantial headcount reductions) on two separate occasions as management bonuses at the time were tied to G&A cost reduction targets. In FY01, as CEO, he had to make further cuts in G&A spending, resulting in a level of spending in FY04 that could not sustain the brand. In FY04, the $107 million G&A spend amount was the lowest it has been since he has been CEO. At that level, he said the company was in survival mode and that such spending could not be maintained without deteriorating the brand.

In FY08, the company's G&A expense was $144 million. Of the $37 million increase off of FY04's low level, he attributed $11.3 million to stock compensation expense (not included in G&A prior to FY07), $2.2 million to Sarbanes-Oxley expense, $12.1 million to inflation, $9.5 million to supporting growth and $1.9 million to unusual charges. Without all of these expenses, which I recognize as costs of doing business today, Mr. Puzder said G&A expenses would not have increased.

He also addressed Ramius' suggestion to consolidate CKR's headquarters, saying that the company has good lease rates on all three of its locations and that although the Anaheim rate is the highest of all three, that relocating the 328 employees that work there would not be cost effective. He did not mention, however, how much money the company could save from less flying time in the Cessna Citation X (please refer to my posting from June 17 for more details about that).

On a positive note, management did slightly lower its capital expenditure plans (down $54 million over the next 3 years) and reduced its new unit growth goals for Hardee's. Despite this welcomed reduction to only 7 new company-owned Hardee's units planned for FY09 (down from 12), Mr. Puzder also said that management will not speed up this growth until the right level of returns are achieved. While I agree with that investment decision, I think an even better decision would be to not build any new Hardee's until the proper level of returns can be achieved. In response to Ramius' suggestion to significantly reduce capital spending, management justified the need for new unit growth for both Carl's and Hardee's, saying that a successful concept must continue to grow in order to maintain its market share.

Although Ramius' letter did not mention any concerns about management compensation, I would have liked to hear management talk about why it has been so overpaid while shareholders have lost money, but I guess that will have to be a story for another day.

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