Will Noodles & Co.'s Uniqueness Give It the Boost It Needs?

Aptly named fast-casual noodle house Noodles & Co.  (NASDAQ: NDLS  ) had investors looking for the next Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG  ) last year when it IPO'd to tremendous anticipation. As is all too common in the hyped-up IPO world, though, the stock popped immediately and then fizzled for the next few months -- giving it a to-date return of 0%. Even with its flightless trajectory, the stock remains incredibly expensive at more than 60 times expected forward earnings. This week, the company reported its preliminary fiscal 2013 fourth-quarter earnings, and the market was able to get behind the numbers. The long-term question isn't whether Noodles will grow -- it will, and fast -- but can demand possibly meet the market's stratospheric expectations?

Earnings recap
For the company's fourth quarter, management sees systemwide same-store sales of 3.9%. Leading the way is company-owned stores at 4.3% growth, and then just 1.5% for franchised locations. While the numbers are attractive, a P/E north of 50 times, especially for a restaurant business, should be humongous.

Other preliminary figures from the quarter look a little more exciting, with top-line sales set to increase just under 18% to $91.5 million. Noodles & Co. opened 12 new restaurants during the quarter. The company is coming up on 400 locations total, and is on a long-term path to 2,500 locations nationwide. Clearly, it has a long way to go, though it's on track and moving fast, as it opened a record number of stores throughout 2013.

Perspective
Noodles & Co. has the ability to succeed in a way that neither Chipotle nor fellow fast-casual flier Potbelly could. Arguably, Chipotle had to convince consumers that it was far above and beyond Taco Bell (not the most difficult task -- sorry, T-Bell) and a different concept from Baja Fresh. Potbelly has it worse: It has to beat a whole group of fast-casual sandwich makers -- of course, of varying quality. The company competes directly with fast-growing Jimmy John's and Jersey Mike's. These concepts have to fight in the trenches to distinguish themselves.

Noodles & Co., as lovingly pointed out by its CEO, is pretty much in a category of one. Chipotle's Southeast Asian concept ShopHouse touches on the business, but is far more limited in menu offerings and image.

This may be the biggest factor in Noodles & Co.'s ability to meet, or even exceed, market expectations.

On the flip side, though, Noodles has to grow its store count blazingly fast -- even faster than it is now -- to begin to justify its earnings ratio. Chipotle, which is a much bigger, more established business, is growing at more than 100 restaurants per year and seeing earnings growth that outpaces the more nimble, unique, category-of-one Noodles. What's wrong with this picture? Shouldn't the scrappy upstart be posting the fatter numbers to justify its premium relative valuation? The answer is a simple yes.

Noodles & Co., as a Co(mpany) is going to do fantastically over the next few years. For investors, though, it just doesn't make sense today.

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