Eat at Woes

Brinker (NYSE: EAT  ) is broken, and it knows it.

The chain of casual dining concepts struggled during its fiscal third quarter, coming up short on the bottom line as well as at the eatery level in terms of popularity.

You probably wouldn't notice if you skimmed Brinker's performance superficially. Revenues inched nearly 3% higher and earnings from continuing operations, before one-time items, grew from $0.43 a share to $0.44 a share.

So far, so bland. However, analysts were looking for net income to clock in at $0.48 per share. And Wall Street is also bummed to see the top line inch up so slowly despite a flurry of expansion activity.

So what's eating Brinker? Let's blame it on the comps.

Q3 Comps

Chili's

(4.4%)

Macaroni Grill

(4.2%)

On the Border

(5.7%)

Maggiano's

(3%)

That's not pretty. Making things worse is that the company incorporated small price hikes at all four concepts. In other words, the defections are probably even greater than the negative unit-level performance seems to indicate.

Brinker isn't alone. Casual dining rival Applebee's (Nasdaq: APPB  ) has also served up a heaping portion of disappointment. Even the slicker chains like P.F. Chang's (Nasdaq: PFCB  ) and Panera (Nasdaq: PNRA  ) have warned in recent weeks.

Brinker's response has been to eat its own cooking. The company announced a $300 million share repurchase plan this morning, and this is after wolfing down $222 million worth of its stock so far in fiscal 2007. Reducing the share count will help prop up earnings on a per-share basis, though obviously comps will have to improve before investors have faith in the company again.

Yes, the weather has been challenging and higher prices at the pump are making eating at home an even more sensible economic solution. However, most of its peers, like Ruby Tuesday (NYSE: RT  ) and Darden (NYSE: DRI  ) , are holding up better. Until Brinker catches up to the pack, let's state the obvious joke in that the Chili's parent will get a chilly market reception.

For more on what's eating these restaurants, check out:

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz loved when NBC's "The Office" hosted the Dunder-Mifflin awards inside a Chili's last year. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. Rick 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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