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MRT reported better than expected 4Q09 earnings yesterday and a -5.3% decline in same-store sales (on a comparable 13-week basis).  This -5.3% marks a significant improvement from the -16.8% in 3Q09.  Easier comparisons drove a lot of this improvement, but trends also got sequentially better on a 2-year average basis.  Comparable restaurant sales turned positive in December and have continued to get better since then (+1.5% in January and +4.4% in February to date).  Management said it is seeing increased business travel and as a result, improved Monday-through-Thursday business.  For reference, in the past, MRT has said that about 80% of guest checks are on expense accounts, but that mix has fallen off throughout this economic downturn.  MRT also said that in response to increased corporate spending, it experienced a pickup in holiday party bookings during the fourth quarter; though many businesses hosted lunch events in place of dinner events, lowering the holiday party average check. 

This increase in expense account dining at MRT supports PFCB’s expectation for marginally better business trends going forward (30% of tickets at the Bistro).  This also increases my conviction that we will continue to see a divergence in performance between casual dining and QSR names, particularly for those concepts that target higher income consumers.  Even after the most recent fall off in consumer confidence, confidence levels remain highest among consumers in the $50K+ income bracket.  The price action in the stocks, along with management commentary, has confirmed this thesis.


RESTAURANTS – DIVERGENCE BECOMING A TREND - consumer confidence income

As the Hedgeye Retail team said in our internal meeting this morning, February retail sales came in better than expectations across the board, but one of the biggest positive divergences came out of Nordstrom.  “Both Nordstrom and Neimans had solid months and although Saks missed relative to expectations, comps came in positive for the month, which is a victory in itself.”

Hedgeye’s Financial Analyst, Josh Steiner, also recently highlighted on February 25th following JPMorgan’s investor day that “The recovery is happening disproportionately at the high end of the income spectrum. The following chart shows that households with income greater than $125k spent +4.8% more in 4Q09 than in the prior year. This compares with +3.3% for families with between $75-125k and just +0.8% for those with less than $75k in household income.”