The past year has been great for most stock market investors. The S&P 500 index is up more than 25% and many restaurant names have posted double-digit gains. Some have even posted triple-digit gains.
However, there are others that have lagged the market and posted negative returns. For Ruby Tuesday (NYSE: RT ) , Ignite Restaurant Group (NASDAQ: IRG ) and BJ's Restaurant Group (NASDAQ: BJRI ) , can they turn their businesses around and will 2014 be a better year for shareholders? For us Fools, it pays to find out if we should bet on a turnaround or not.
Shares of Ruby Tuesday (NYSE: RT ) are down more than 14% in the past year. The chain has been losing money as it faces stiff competition from the likes of Chili's, Applebee's, and TGI Friday's. While these chains are focused on growth, Ruby Tuesday is focused on cost savings and trying to stay afloat.
It has certainly been a rough few months for Ruby Tuesday and its shareholders. First-quarter results showed that same-restaurant sales decreased 11.4% at company-owned restaurants and decreased 8.4% at domestic franchise locations.
And then chairman Matthew Drapkin resigned. He was an activist shareholder who took a 2.4% stake in the chain and received two board seats last year. For shareholders, it looks like he's throwing in the towel. And last month, Moody's cut Ruby Tuesday's debt rating and issued a negative outlook for the chain.
While a turnaround at Ruby Tuesday won't be easy, there is potential. For one, the company owns and operates 703 Ruby Tuesday locations and also 21 Lime Fresh restaurants.
There is the potential for the company to sell real estate and switch to a franchise model, just like DineEquity, the owner of Applebee's and IHOP. This would also allow the company to focus on menu innovation and reinvest in the brand through advertising and promotions. Ruby Tuesday also has a pretzel burger on its menu. Maybe the pretzel burger can do what it did for Wendy's and drive sales.
Ignite a turnaround?
Shares of Ignite Restaurant Group (NASDAQ: IRG ) have disappointed investors for the past year by dropping more than 10%. The weakest link for Ignite has been Romano's Macaroni Grill, which the company acquired earlier this year. Systemwide comparable sales decreased 2.7% at Romano's and that lead to the company posting a loss in the third quarter of $1.9 million. But the other two concepts owned by Ignite have been performing well. Ignite also owns Joe's Crab Shack and Brick House Tavern. I recently highlighted how well Joe's is doing in "Joe's Crab Shack Is Eating Red Lobster's Lunch."
A turnaround in Ignite Restaurant Group's shares is dependent on a turnaround at Romano's. To boost sales at Romano's, the company is running several specials to drive customers into its doors. Romano's is offering 25 specials per day at its restaurants, which include a four-course tasting menu for $15. Romano's is increasing its TV advertising to drive awareness, and so far the reaction on social media sites has been positive. As always, Romano's has an open bottle of wine on every table to start the night right for its guests.
One thing the company is doing is reassessing the restaurants in its portfolio. In the third quarter, the company closed three under-performing restaurants and converted one Romano's to a Brick House restaurant. I think that is one good thing about having several chains in Ignite's portfolio...the company can make changes as necessary.
A restaurant in need of new menu items
Shares of BJ's Restaurants (NASDAQ: BJRI ) have also disappointed investors this year. Shares are down more than 10% year to date. This comes on the back of weakness in its core business. For the third quarter, BJ's posted negative comparable-restaurant sales of 2.2%. The company cited the weak sales environment in the casual-dining industry as the reason for the drop in comparable sales.
A big part of BJ's problem is that it has not been innovating when it comes to its menu. While the chain has plenty of beers on tap, its menu items of pizza and burgers can be found at any other establishment. The good news is that management is aware of this and plans to introduce new menu items for the new year. The company also needs to increase its awareness because there are many consumers that have never even heard of BJ's Restaurants.
One thing that has been keeping investors in the stock is that the company plans to double in size over the next five years. The restaurant chain currently has only 143 restaurants in 15 states. Next year, the company plans to open 17 to 19 new restaurants. A BJ's location averages about $5.8 million a year in sales, so revenue is going to continue growing as the company expands. With $30 million in cash and no debt on the balance sheet, BJ's is certainly in a great position to fund its growth prospects.
For growth investors, I think the two best choices are Ignite and BJ's. They have concepts that are working and plenty of growth ahead. Ruby Tuesday is more for value investors as I see it as a value play and not a play on the company's core restaurant business.
I really like Joe's Crab Shack and see that chain driving growth for Ignite. A turnaround at Romano's Macaroni Grill would be an added bonus. For BJ's, new menu items will go a long way in differentiating the chain and help drive customers to its doors. All in all, 2014 looks to be an interesting year for these three restaurant chains.
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