No Ka-Ching for P.F. Chang's

Not everything Chinese is paved in gold. The P.F. Chang's (Nasdaq: PFCB  ) restaurant chain is just one example.

Of course, this stock isn't based in China. The casual-dining specialist calls Scottsdale, Ariz., its home and dishes out updated tweaks of Asian culinary standards. Now, P.F. Chang's has already gone further than most players that have tried -- and failed -- to take an Asian-fueled eatery concept national. Remember Darden's (NYSE: DRI  ) China Coast chain? Probably not. The parent of Red Lobster and Olive Garden shuttered the concept ages ago.

So even though P.F. Chang's grew its revenue 17% over last quarter to $270.9 million, there's more -- or perhaps less -- to that figure than meets the eye.

Eat, sleep, and be scary
Comps are falling at both the P.F. Chang's chain and the Pei Wei concept. Pei Wei was supposed to carry the baton once the company exhausted the growth potential of its flagship eateries.

But while heady expansion can fool you into buying into top-line growth, empty tables will kill you on the bottom line. And that's what we're seeing here. Third-quarter earnings fell by 20% to $0.20 a share, and weakness at both concepts has the company lowering its outlook for all of 2007. It now forecasts a profit of just $1.19 a share, well off its earlier forecast of $1.34 a share. That doesn't sound so ominous on an annual basis, but then you realize the company is telling you that the current quarter's profit is being slashed in half.

With 300 units under its belt, P.F. Chang's is no longer a small speedster with an endless list of suburban strip malls to populate. However, the allure of P.F. Chang's at this price is tempting. Paying 24 times this year's profit guidance may seem risky for lukewarm growth, but that isn't pricing in a potential turnaround.

To go where no plan has gone before
The risk here is that a specialized niche, like the Asian fusion fare that P.F. Chang's is championing, may be a passing fancy among the fickle palates of American diners. There isn't a whole lot of room for a menu makeover the way there is with a more casual continental eatery, such as Ruby Tuesday (NYSE: RT  ) , which can reinvent itself every few years.

So keep an eye on comps over the next few quarters. Once they turn, your head should follow.


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