Who Wants These Bones?

You can give a dog a bone, but what if that dog happens to be Smokey Bones?

Ask Darden Restaurants (NYSE: DRI  ) , which has had enough of its rib joint. It has shuttered 56 unprofitable locations and is looking to sell the remaining 73 properties.

Darden was hoping that Smokey Bones could be its third national chain. Darden loves its Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains, but the search to find a third leg to stand on has proven fruitless in the past. China Coast wasn't the answer a decade ago. Bahama Breeze hasn't grown the way it should have over the past 10 years.

Darden realizes that time isn't kind. Instead of cooking up a third casual dining concept in-house, it may have to buy out a smaller, established chain. It would take too long to grow its more upscale Seasons 52 concept at this point.

But what will become of Smokey Bones Barbeque & Grill? Even if the remaining units are the profitable ones, it may be a hard sell. Famous Dave's (Nasdaq: DAVE  ) watches over 41 company-owned locations and 107 franchised units, but this bite may be too big to chew. A steakhouse chain like RARE Hospitality (Nasdaq: RARE  ) would have a more likely ability to absorb Smokey Bones, but it may be gun-shy after unloading its Bugaboo Creek themed steakhouse chain.

Larger casual-dining players? Forget it. Applebee's (Nasdaq: APPB  ) and Brinker (NYSE: EAT  ) are struggling to get their existing eateries on track. So all roads may lead to a private-equity buyout, unless a serial acquirer like Landry's (NYSE: LNY  ) steps into the mix. 

Landry's could make it work. It has had no problem moving away from its seafood roots to snap up everything from casino operations to the Rainforest Cafe themed restaurant. If it loses its bid for Smith & Wollensky (Nasdaq: SWRG  ) , Smokey Bones may prove to be a tempting "downmarket" target on the rebound.

Either way, the days of Smokey Bones as a Darden property are numbered. Like a dog with a freshly gnawed bone, Darden now needs to dig a hole big enough to bury it in.

For more on the casual eateries, check out:        

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a fan of Bahama Breeze and is surprised that it missed the mark in not growing more popular than it has over the years. 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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