Ruby Tuesday Shares Go Green, but I'd Still Rather Buy Buffalo Wild Wings

Shares of Ruby Tuesday, Inc. (NYSE: RT  ) jumped more than 12% Thursday after the company turned in a solid third-quarter report. But you know what? I'm convinced there are better places for restaurant investors to put their money to work.

Before we get to that, however, let's take a look at what has everybody so excited.

The numbers
First, though Ruby Tuesday's revenue from continuing operations fell almost 4% year over year to $295.6 million, it still handily beat analysts' estimates, which called for first-quarter sales of $284.2 million.

Ruby Tuesday, Buffalo Wild Wings

Source: Ruby Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Ruby Tuesday's loss from continuing operations narrowed to $0.07 per share from $0.10 in the same year-ago period, which was good enough to beat expectations by a penny per share.

But perhaps most encouraging, even though Ruby Tuesday management declined to provide specific earnings guidance, they did say same-restaurant sales in the current quarter are expected to be somewhere in the range of minus 1% to plus 1% -- a notable improvement that stoked hopes that its turnaround is taking hold.

Here's why I'm not convinced
First off, haven't we been here before? 

After all, this time last year Ruby Tuesday shares jumped on eerily similar results. Only then, at least Ruby Tuesday was profitable, despite company-owned restaurant closings and year-over-year decreases in revenue, net income, and same-restaurant sales. What's more, investors rejoiced when the company estimated same-restaurant sales would be flat for the full fiscal year 2013. 

Unfortunately, three months later investors were in for a rude awakening when Ruby Tuesday's fiscal fourth-quarter results badly missed expectations. For the full fiscal year 2013, same-restaurant sales at company-owned and franchised locations had fallen 1% and 2.1%, respectively.

Turnarounds are rough -- take a bite of this instead
Putting aside Ruby Tuesday's limited guidance and track record of underperformance, I'm simply not impressed by a company that not only just lost slightly less money than Wall Street expected but also still seems to lack a coherent, compelling vision to help consumers identify with its brand.

Buffalo Wild Wings, Ruby Tuesday

Source: Buffalo Wild Wings.

Instead, I'd much rather put my money to work in a restaurant chain for which long-term success is all but assured. You know, one of those that consumers actively seek out to satisfy a particular urge.

If you're looking for a peer in the casual-dining space, Buffalo Wild Wings (NASDAQ: BWLD  ) immediately comes to mind given its entertaining atmosphere and relatively focused menu offerings. In short, Buffalo Wild Wings stands out among its peers by limiting its scope and serving a unique niche. Wings, beer, and sports? Yes, please.

Luckily for you, cautious CEO comments regarding the future price of wings have helped shares of Buffalo Wild Wings drop roughly 5% so far in 2014, despite a solid 22% increase in comparable quarterly revenue and comps growth of 5.2% at company-owned restaurants during its most recent quarter. What's more, Buffalo Wild Wings also expects earnings to grow 20% in 2014, thanks to positive comps, carefully controlled costs, and continuing to build out new locations.

But there is a catch. Namely, that Buffalo Wild Wings stock simply doesn't look cheap; shares currently trade around 36 times last year's earnings and 24 times next year's estimates. Even if we ignore the fact that we can't calculate those ratios for the unprofitable Ruby Tuesday, Buffalo Wild Wings' premium rightly gives investors pause.

Foolish takeaway
Then again, when has Buffalo Wild Wings ever looked cheap? 
Looking out over the past five years -- a period during which Buffalo Wild Wings' stock has quadrupled -- the wing specialist's shares have boasted an average trailing P/E ratio of 27.5.

I'll admit shares of Ruby Tuesday could offer plenty of upside if same-store sales continue marching in the right direction. Personally, however, I'm more than willing to pay a premium for what appears to me to be an obviously superior business.

In the end, if you can maintain a three- to five-year time frame and are willing to dollar-cost average into a position, I'm convinced Buffalo Wild Wings will more than whet your appetite for long-term profits.

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