Clicking Those Ruby Slippers

Now, that's service.

The Ruby Tuesday (NYSE: RT  ) chain of casual bistros topped Wall Street estimates the way it tops its handcrafted burgers: with a lot of leafy lettuce. The eatery posted fiscal third-quarter earnings of $0.57 per share before stock-based compensation charges and a lease-related charge. That was well ahead of the $0.50 a share it had earned a year ago and the $0.53 per-share showing that analysts were expecting.

Ruby Tuesday -- trading under the new ticker symbol of RT this morning and ditching yesterday's tired RI -- posted a 12% increase in total revenues.

The company clearly held up well during a difficult period for many of its peers. It saw comps dip 1% at its company-owned units and climb 1.8% at its domestic licensed restaurants. That's stacked on top of last year's impressive spurts of 4.7% for company-owned units and 5.4% for franchised locations.

This compares favorably to larger chains like Brinker (NYSE: EAT  ) and Applebee's (Nasdaq: APPB  ) that have been posting steep store-level declines through the end of February. Yes, comps have dipped at Ruby Tuesday in recent weeks, but that, too, was stacked on top of a spectacular start to last year's fiscal fourth quarter.

Would it be better if the company-owned units were doing better than the third-party locations? Sure. There's more money to be made at its operated locations, and there are also more of those in the Ruby Tuesday family. It owns 678 locations, as it collects royalties from 196 domestic and 52 international licensed units.

The company is looking to earn between $1.59 a share to $1.61 a share for fiscal 2007, which ends in June. It then sees 7% to 15% in bottom-line growth in fiscal 2008. The new guidance prices Ruby Tuesday at just 17 times this year's profitability and 15 to 16 times next year's income target.

Next year's projection may change if the company move aggressively to remodel its stores, yet I tend to look at that as a good thing. If Ruby Tuesday is encouraged by the initial results at some of its updated stores to go ahead chainwide, it's near-term pain for long-term gain.

That's a trade-off that investors should be willing to make. How will they decide to top their Triple Prime Burger? Well, that's another matter entirely.

For more on the casual dining kings, check out:

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz isn't sure why the Ruby Tuesday closest to his home shut down a couple of years ago. He also wonders why there's just one national chain named after a Rolling Stones song while Jimmy Buffett has Margaritaville and Cheeseburger in Paradise. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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