Noodles & Company: Great Growth But Overpriced

Everyone is looking for the next big opportunity to add some growth to their portfolios. Over the past few years, IPOs have been a great place to search for winners, with stocks such as LinkedIn and Facebook offering big time growth. 

One stock that I believe has a great opportunity for long-term growth for years to come is Noodles & Company  (NASDAQ: NDLS  ) . Since this is a restaurant company, it may not have as much appeal as a fast-growing social-media company; however, there are several reasons to be very excited about this company.

Room for growth
There are currently just over 350 Noodles & Co restaurants in the United States, but the CEO believes that Noodles can reach 2,500 restaurants in the U.S. comfortably when it's all said and done. The long-term outlook in the U.S. alone leaves Noodles with room to add over seven times the current amount of restaurants. Noodles plans to open up 38-42 new stores for 2013 and increase its restaurant count by 14%. The majority of Noodles' restaurants are located in the Midwest, and they only occupy 26 states nationwide. With 24 states in the U.S. still yet to be monetized, including the heavily populated East and West coasts, Noodles has plenty of room for growth.

Even with Noodles expanding at a rate of 14% each year, the company has continued to have strong regional success with a 4.4% increase in same-store sales. This is a crucial statistic when trying to find a successful company because it means that Noodles is continuing to grow its customer base with existing restaurants. If same store sales were down, it would be a red flag that perhaps Noodles is nothing more than a fad stock that can't maintain its customer base like other top restaurant chains.

Unique product
There is no doubt that when it comes to fast food, the burger has been the popular option for ages. Noodles offers a more unique fast-food experience, though. The dishes Noodles offers are gourmet, eye catching pasta dishes that are marketed as being fresh and made right as the customer orders them. There are no other restaurant franchises serving pasta in America right now with the growth business plan Noodles possesses. Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden, cannot be put in the same category as Noodles--Olive Garden is more of a sit-down dining experience, while Noodles is a fast-dining experience with a condensed menu, much better pasta options, and a much faster service.

As far as other competitors, Noodles' greatest competitor might be Chipotle with its new spin-off ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen. Saying ShopHouse might be a competitor to Noodles could be a stretch though, because unlike ShopHouse, Noodles does not limit itself to strictly Asian cuisine. Noodles possesses much more variety. Italian, Asian, European, and even some American favorites such as buttered noodles and macaroni and cheese are also on Noodles' menu. Customers can even choose special local regional dishes such as Wisconsin Cheese Steak and BBQ Pork Sandwich.

Healthier options
All of Noodles' dishes are customizable when the consumer orders them. If the customer wants to make his or her dish vegetarian, they may do so. If the customer wants more protein or vegetables added to their dish, they may do that as well. Organic tofu and naturally raised livestock options are also available. Low calorie options are also available, as Noodles carries a "500 or less" calorie menu. We all know that healthy options have become important to the fast food sector, as many Americans look to become more aware of what they are eating.

Third quarter earnings results
On Nov. 6, Noodles reported earnings of $0.11 per share and revenue of $88.9 million. These results were about what analysts had expected, but did not do much to warrant Noodles carrying a P/E ratio of over 80. As a result the share price plummeted nearly 10%, closing around $42 per share.

Despite Noodles' less than stellar earnings, adjusted net income rose 44.6% to $3.3 million from $2.3 million the previous quarter. More impressively, net income from the third quarter in 2012 was only $0.1 million. The comparison shows that Noodles is not only increasing its income quickly, but becoming much more efficient with its money. Management also announced that 20 new restaurants were opened during the quarter, pushing the grand total to 42 new restaurants on the year. Seeing as the goal for 2013 was to open 38-42 restaurants, Noodles has already met its annual goal with an entire quarter of growth still remaining for the year.

Additional highlights
Even with the restaurant sector having some pretty strong competition, Noodles ranks No. 5 among all fast casual restaurants, according to Ranker. Another fascinating aspect of Noodles' business model is that the average price of an entrée is $8 among all restaurants. Experts believe that Noodles can open shops in places other fast-casual restaurants cannot because even with lower customer volume, Noodles still profits largely off each dish.

Unlike McDonald's or other burger joints that sell meat products, which offer low profit margins, Noodles sells pasta, which carries an extremely high profit margin. Each restaurant averages about $1 million in annual sales and about 20% in profitability, which is very efficient. It's no surprise that the CEO was part of the team at Chipotle Mexican Grill before being named CEO of Noodles.

Technical downside
Although Noodles has a great company business plan, it still might be a little pricey to warrant a buy. Although I believe in the stock long-term, it's still trading around 78 times next year's earnings, with a 28% long-term growth rate. This gives Noodles a PEG ratio of 2.79, making it overpriced at the current share price. Despite the great growth opportunity Noodles possesses, I am always leery to buy a stock that carries a PEG ratio over 2. To put Noodles' current share price in perspective, Starbucks trades at around 31 times next years earnings. Noodles' current share price is more than double Starbucks P/E multiple, and I can not endorse buying shares at these levels.

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