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Fiesta Restaurant Group, Inc (FRGI) Q3 2021 Earnings Call Transcript

By Motley Fool Transcribers – Nov 11, 2021 at 8:30PM

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FRGI earnings call for the period ending October 3, 2021.

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Fiesta Restaurant Group, Inc (FRGI 2.52%)
Q3 2021 Earnings Call
Nov 11, 2021, 4:30 p.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Good day and welcome to the Fiesta Restaurant Group Third Quarter 2021 Earnings Call. Today's conference is being recorded. At this time, I'd like to turn the conference over to Mr. Raphael Gross, Managing Director at ICR. Please go ahead.

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Raphael Gross -- Managing Director

Thank you, operator. Fiesta Restaurant Group's third quarter 2021 earnings release was issued after the market closed today. If you have not already accessed it, it can be found on the company's website, www.frgi.com, under the Investor Relations section. Before we begin, I'd like to inform you that during the call today, the company will make various statements that are not based on historical information. These forward-looking statements include, without limitation, statements regarding the company's future financial position and results of operations, business strategy, budget, projected costs and plans, and objectives of management for future operations.

Actual outcomes and results may differ materially unless it's expressed or forecasted in such forward-looking statements, and the company can give no assurance that such forward-looking statements will prove to be correct. Important factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from those expressed or implied by the forward-looking statements can be found in the company's SEC filings. Please note that during today's conference call, certain non-GAAP financial measures will be discussed, which the company believes can be useful in evaluating its performance.

Any discussion of such information should not be considered in isolation or as a substitute for results prepared in accordance with GAAP and a reconciliation to comparable GAAP measures is available in the company's earnings release. On the call with me today are President and Chief Executive Officer, Rich Stockinger; and Chief Experience Officer, Patty Lopez-Calleja; and Chief Financial Officer, Dirk Montgomery.

And now I'd like to turn the call over to Rich.

Richard Stockinger -- Chief Executive Officer and President

Thank you, Rafe. I'd first like to thank all of the investors and other participants on the call today for their continued support and a special thanks on this Veterans Day to our Veterans and active military for their service. I'll be covering three topics today, a business update and overview of third quarter results, the status of our 2021 strategic priorities and thoughts on 2022. Dirk will then wrap up with a financial update before we open the call for questions. Like we said, we also have Patty Lopez-Calleja, our Chief Experience Officer here with us to provide more color on our digital status during the Q&A session.

As you know, we announced the sale of Taco Cabana in July and successfully closed the transaction on August 16. Concurrent with the Taco Cabana divestiture, we use the sale proceeds to fully pay off our outstanding term loan balance, plus a prepayment premium totaling $76.9 million. As a result, we are now debt free with a total cash balance of $55.8 million as of October 3. And our leadership team is fully focused on achieving what we believe are significant growth opportunities for the Pollo Tropical brand. Regarding third quarter results, we were pleased with the Pollo Tropical's third quarter sales performance, despite lost hours and other operating challenges from staffing shortages throughout the quarter.

Third quarter 2021 comparable restaurant sales were 13.8% versus 2020 and accelerated to a 0.9% over 2019, an improvement from the second quarter 2021 comparable restaurant sales versus 2019, which were below 1.8%. Comparable restaurant sales results were much stronger in markets that had adequate staffing. Those markets realized third quarter 2021 comparable restaurant sales of approximately 16.7% versus 2020 and up 4.3% versus 2019 with very promising sales acceleration in non-core markets, including double-digit positive comps versus 2020 and 2019 in both the Tampa and Southwest Florida markets.

Our positive comparable restaurant sales growth versus 2020 and 2019 continued in October and we are optimistic about accelerating sales momentum as we continue to achieve increased staffing levels. As you all know, staff availability has been an industrywide challenge. We have approached this issue with a very disciplined and forward-thinking approach and took proactive action in the third quarter that has positively impacted staffing levels and margins. We achieved adequate staffing levels at a total company level by September and continued to show staffing improvement in October.

In addition, the combination of pricing action and ongoing labor optimization is resulting in meaningful margin improvement in October compared to the third quarter of 2021. Additional details on key action items are as follows. We first increased wage rates to at least market benchmarks across all units and positions; began offering hiring incentives and increased recruiting resources in select markets that are more understaffed, we are offering above market wage rates. In order to remain competitive in these challenging market conditions we are also enhancing our benefit packages, including offering more assessable, comprehensive and affordable medical plans and the addition of other attractive benefits such as including emergency, child care, family leave, company paid educational programs and commuter assistance.

We are taking a phased approach to price increases, which should enable us to recover margins while maintaining value perceptions. We implemented a 3.7% price increase in late August and are targeting additional price increases in the fourth quarter of approximately 4% to 6%. In addition, we are accelerating our ongoing labor optimization efforts to improve staffing efficiency, which we expect will increase both staff availability and margins. Let me provide a bit more color on our staffing and margin improvement plans. Regarding staffing, the fact that comp sales were up 16.7% versus 2020 and up 4.3% versus 2019 in markets in which we were adequately staffed is promising.

The only major market that is currently below adequate staffing levels is Miami Dade where we are implementing additional actions to improve staffing levels, including offering additional pay rate, incentives for weekends, increased training and recruiting resources and enriched sign-on and referral bonuses. Those additional actions are resulting in improvements in staffing issues in that market. Our phased approach to price increases over the third and fourth quarter is trailing the wage rate increases, which resulted in a short-term reduction in margins that we anticipate will be recovered in the first half of 2022 as we implement additional pricing action and continue our enhanced and ongoing labor optimization efforts.

As a reminder, our historic pricing action in 2019 and 2020 was slightly over 1% over that two-year period which is well below our estimates of competitive price increases over that time. Our internal competitive price benchmarking and research conducted by our outside pricing analytics consultants gives us confidence that we can implement our planned price increases while still maintaining attractive value perceptions with our customers. We intensified our ongoing efforts to optimize labor schedule in October, which will include refinements such as scheduling and shorter time increments, compressing prep and open and close hours and improving the accuracy of our sales forecasts that drive scheduling.

We have already seen positive results from those refinements with wage rate -- with restaurant wages as a percentage of sales decreasing approximately 200 basis points on a runway basis by the end of October compared to the third quarter of '21, after adjusting for short-term incentives such as sign-on bonuses that are being phased out as staffing improves. Based on planned pricing action and labor scheduling optimization efforts underway, we fully expect margins will improve over the remainder of 2021 we fully expect margins will improve over the remainder of 2021 and into 2022. We are targeting restaurant level adjusted EBITDA margins, a non-GAAP financial measure returning to the 18% to 20% range in the first half of 2022 barring any unforeseen changes in our cost structure or operating environment.

Now for an update on the third quarter profitability; restaurant level adjusted EBITDA margins, a non-GAAP financial measure declined in the third quarter compared to 2020, primarily due to the wage rate increases and hiring incentives offered ahead of the pricing action. Restaurant level adjusted EBITDA, a non-GAAP financial measures for Pollo Tropical as a percentage of restaurant sales decreased with third quarter restaurant level adjusted EBITDA as a percentage of restaurant sales of 14.8% in 2021 compared to 21.2% in 2020 and 20.1% in 2019. Continuing operations adjusted EBITDA, a non-GAAP financial measure decreased to $3.7 million compared to $8.2 million in 2020.

The decrease was primarily due to higher labor costs, advertising expenses, G&A expenses, repair and maintenance costs partially offset by the impact of the higher restaurant sales and improved cost of sales margins. Approximately $0.9 million of the third quarter 2021 labor cost increase compared to 2020 includes overtime and staffing-related incentives that are short-term in nature. Dirk will provide additional details regarding the third quarter results as part of his prepared comments. Next, an update on our strategic priorities; as I mentioned on prior calls, our strategic priorities are as follows. One, concentrate on accelerating growth in non-dine-in channels and improving the guest experience across all channels to better enable our customers to enjoy our brand wherever and whenever they choose.

Enhance our digital platform and make improvements in customization, ease of use and speed of service for off-premise including an enhanced digital drive-thru experience, curbside pickup enabled by geofencing technology and the introduction of QR kiosk in-hand technology for ordering and payments. Three, continue to test and refine the Pollo Tropical brand proposition and unit design and investment in preparation for future remodels as well as expansion in existing and new markets. Regarding non-dine-in channel growth, we continued to drive year-over-year growth in delivery with comparable restaurant sales growth of 33% in the third quarter of 2021 versus the third quarter of 2020.

In addition, third quarter 2021 online comparable same-store sales grew 42% compared to 2020. Our App Store rating for the app is currently 4.9 for iOS and 4.8 for Android out of 5 stars, much improved from our prior app ratings before the enhancements. In addition, the average app user check for the third quarter of 2021 was approximately 18% higher than the non-app user check average. Over the third quarter we continue to make investments to enhance our digital platform and improve the customer experience. We completed a number of mobile app enhancements and made good progress on the design of our digital drive-thru platform, which we will be piloting in the fourth quarter.

With staffing levels more stable in the fourth quarter, we are starting curbside initially in 77 select fully staffed locations with our new geofencing technology and launching contactless QR code usage to provide customers another alternative to drive-thru in the pilot locations. We are very excited that we will be able to offer our guests such state-of-the-art digital platforms. Finally, regarding our third strategic priority, we continue to work on improving the customer experience through better speed of service, order accuracy and labor efficiency. Against that mission, we are redesigning our kitchens with assistance from TPA an industrial engineering firm.

We will be testing the redesign in a mock restaurant during the fourth quarter. Our remodel program is also advancing with an additional 6 to 8 units at varying scope levels completed by year-end aimed at testing key restaurant design and operation platform enhancements. Looking forward toward 2022, we are in the process of finalizing our commodity and food costs negotiations for next year. We have not yet completed the negotiations in all major categories. But we expect that we will see higher food cost in 2022 compared to 2021. We intend to offset any food cost increases with additional pricing action.

Regarding future uses of cash and investments for growth, we will be taking a disciplined approach to using our cash for investments. As we have in the past, we will prioritize spending on strategic growth initiatives that will continually enhance our brand image and drive operational effectiveness and efficiency. But before we finalize capital plans for 2022, we'll evaluate the results of our digital platform tests and remodels being completed in Q4 of 2021. We also intend to continue the approved share repurchasing program as a good use of cash that, we believe, improves returns for our shareholders. As we mentioned last quarter, we are working toward reducing G&A to appropriate levels, now that we have divested Taco Cabana.

Third quarter 2021 continuing operations G&A was $11.2 million or 12.6% of revenue and includes $2.6 million of overhead costs, excluding stock-based compensation that were previously allocated to Taco Cabana. Our goal is to reduce G&A as a percentage of sales that is comparable to our peer group, which we believe is 8.5% to 9% of Pollo Tropical sales. We made progress during the third quarter qualifying areas of potential savings, and we'll be finalizing implementation plans over the remainder of the year. We are targeting 2022 to achieve the targeted G&A level on a run rate basis.

In summary, we are optimistic about continuing our positive sales momentum as we improved staffing levels and as we accelerate progress from our digital initiatives. As we implement additional pricing action in the fourth quarter and continue our refined labor optimization efforts, we expect margins to continue the improvement that we've seen in October. We expect that our continued efforts to drive an upgraded customer experience across all service channels, an ongoing investment in expanding our digital platform will accelerate top line growth going forward.

Now, Dirk will provide the financial update and closing comments.

Dirk Montgomery -- Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, Rich, and good afternoon, everyone. I'll start by reviewing our third quarter results, and then, provide you with an update on our outlook for the remainder of 2021. One reporting note before I start, due to the divestiture, Taco Cabana's results, excluding corporate overhead costs, are presented as discontinued operations in our financial statements. The consolidated results I'll be reviewing today will be focused on continuing operations and Pollo Tropical. Overall, we were very pleased with our third quarter comparable same store sales performance of plus 13.8% compared to the third quarter of 2020 and up 0.9% versus the third quarter of 2019.

Our same store comp sales growth compared to 2019 also outpaced second quarter 2021 comparable same store sales versus 2019. We are very encouraged by the strong momentum we are seeing in markets that are more fully staffed. As we continued to improve staffing levels, we are optimistic that our sales momentum will accelerate. Third quarter 2019 same store sales were negatively impacted by Hurricane Dorian, and details on the weather-related impact are noted in today's earnings release. The third quarter improvement compared to 2020 resulted from a 4.2% increase in comparable restaurant transactions and a 9.6% increase in the net impact of mix and pricing.

The increase in product channel mix and pricing versus 2020 was driven primarily by increases in delivery and drive-thru check average and menu price increases of 5.7%. Total continuing operations revenues increased 13.7% to $88.6 million in the third quarter of 2021 from $77.9 million in the third quarter of 2020, driven by the comparable restaurant sales increase at Pollo Tropical. Third quarter 2021 consolidated net income was $17.3 million or $0.66 per diluted share and includes $0.78 per diluted share of positive impact from discontinued operations, primarily from the gain on the sale of Taco Cabana.

The third quarter 2021 loss from continuing operations was $3.2 million or negative $0.12 per share -- per diluted share. This compares to consolidated net income in the third quarter of 2020 and $4.6 million or $0.18 per diluted share, including $0.10 per diluted share negative impact primarily from impairment charges and closed restaurant rent charges offset by the favorable impact of $0.23 per share, primarily from adjustments to the deferred tax valuation allowance, the impact of federal tax rate changes and other income. Third quarter 2020 net income from continuing operations was $4.4 million or $0.17 per diluted share.

On an adjusted basis, third quarter 2021 consolidated net loss from continuing operations was $2.4 million or $0.09 per diluted share compared to adjusted net income of $1.2 million or $0.04 per diluted share in the third quarter of 2020. Please see the non-GAAP reconciliation table in our earnings release for more details. Continuing operations, consolidated adjusted EBITDA, a non-GAAP financial measure was $3.7 million and 4.1% of revenue in 2021 compared to $8.2 million in 2020 and 10.5% of revenue. Turning to restaurant level results, Pollo Tropical restaurant level adjusted EBITDA margin a non-GAAP financial measure was 14.8% in 2021 compared to 21.2% in 2020 and 20.1% in 2019.

Restaurant level EBITDA margins declined during the third quarter compared to 2020, primarily due to hourly wage rate increases, short-term hiring incentives and additional overtime in training ahead of planned pricing action to offset those costs, $0.9 million of the labor cost increases for overtime and staffing related incentives are short-term in nature, representing approximately 100 basis points as a percentage of sales. We expect the planned pricing action we are taking combined with ongoing labor optimization will recover restaurant level EBITDA margins, a non-GAAP financial measure to the range of 18% to 20% by the first half of 2021 barring unforeseen changes in our cost structure and operating environment.

As Rich mentioned, we are already seeing improved margins in October preliminary results. A combination of labor optimization and pricing action resulted in a 200 basis point reduction in restaurant wages as a percentage of sales on a run rate basis in October compared to the third quarter of 2021 after adjusting for temporary hiring incentives and bonuses being offered on a short-term basis to improve staffing levels. As a reminder, due to the impact of holidays in November and December, our restaurant wages as a percentage of sales in those months has been historically a 100 basis points to 150 basis points above October levels.

To further improve margins we intend to take additional pricing action in December in the range of 4% to 6% and we'll continue our labor optimization efforts. As Rich mentioned, our historic pricing in 2019 and 2020 was low in comparison to our competitors, which should allow us to take additional pricing while maintaining attractive value perceptions with our customers. Regarding third quarter trends in key expense categories cost of sales as a percentage of restaurant sales in the third quarter of 2021 decreased to 30.7% compared to 31.7% in 2020 due to price increases, sales mix and lower promotions and discounts, partially offset by a higher food and packaging costs.

Restaurant wages as a percentage of net sales increased from 23.3% in the third quarter of 2020 to 28% in 2021 driven primarily by higher labor costs due to higher wage rates and overtime due in part to labor shortages partially offset by the impact of lower medical costs and the impact of higher restaurant sales. Higher labor costs were driven primarily by hourly wage rate increases, short-term hiring incentives, additional overtime and training and short-term guaranteed operations leadership bonuses. Approximately $0.9 million of the third quarter 2021 labor cost increases compared to 2020 included overtime and staffing related incentives that are short-term in nature.

Other restaurant operating expenses as a percentage of restaurant sales increased in the third quarter compared to 2020 due primarily to the impact of higher repair and maintenance costs and higher delivery fee expense due to increased delivery channel sales, partially offset by the impact of higher restaurant sales on utilities costs. Rent in the third quarter increased compared to 2020 due primarily to the impact of sale leaseback transactions and lease renewals at higher rates. Turning now to cash flow related comments. In the third quarter, our cash balance decreased from the second quarter balance of $65.8 million to $52 million at the end of the third quarter.

We utilized the proceeds from the sale -- the Taco Cabana sale to fully repay our outstanding term loan and utilize cash on hand to pay transaction costs related to the Taco Cabana sale. We also made a one-time payment of approximately $3 million for the employer portion and the social security benefits from 2020 that we were allowed to defer under the CARES Act as part of COVID relief. One additional cash benefit we expect, looking forward, is the payment of the insurance claim proceeds from the costs associated with winter storm Uri. Our claim has been filed and we are awaiting a response from our insurers.

Total capital expenditures for the third quarter of 2021 were $6.4 million, which included $3 million for Taco Cabana and $3.4 million for Pollo Tropical. $3.0 million of the Pollo Tropical capital expenditures were for maintenance, with the remainder for remodels, technology investments and corporate development related expenses. We resumed our stock repurchases during the third quarter of 2021, repurchasing a total of 338,223 shares for $3.9 million. I'll close with a few comments on our outlook for the remainder of 2021. We expect the margin compression we saw in Q3 to be short term.

In our October preliminary results, we have already seen margin recovery, and we expect to see ongoing margin improvement going forward, driven by intensified labor optimization and additional pricing action. In October, we continued to make progress on increasing our staffing levels and are optimistic about continued top line momentum with October same-store sale comps above 2019 levels. Commodity food costs are expected to remain roughly stable for the remainder of 2021 based on current supply commitments we have in place for calendar 2021 across key commodities. The entire restaurant segment is facing cost pressure challenges as we look toward 2022.

As Rich noted, we have not yet completed the negotiations in all major categories, but we expect that we will see higher food costs in 2022 compared to 2021 and need to finalize key commodity negotiations before we communicate estimates of cost increases for 2022. We intend to offset any food cost increases with additional pricing action and we are confident that we can recover margins without significant traffic risk given our low level of relative historical pricing actions.

Regarding G&A, our goal is to reduce G&A as a percentage of sales to what we believe is comparable to our peer group, which is 8.5% to 9% based on Pollo Tropical sales. As Rich mentioned, we made progress during the third quarter qualifying ideas of potential savings, and we would be finalizing implementation plans over the remainder of the year. As part of the Taco Cabana divestiture, we continue to provide back office services to Taco Cabana through mid-December and we are targeting 2022 to achieve the targeted G&A level on a run rate basis.

Finally, full year 2021 capital expenditures are expected to be in the range of $25 million to $30 million, including approximately $6.5 million related to Taco Cabana prior to the close of the sale. As we look toward the balance of the year, we are focused on continuing efforts to be a preferred employer and accelerating our margin improvement above the third quarter of 2021. In addition, we will continue our ongoing efforts to drive an upgraded customer experience across all service channels, further investing in our growing digital platform and continuing to refine our brand proposition in new unit design features and remodel tests to drive future growth.

Thank you for listening and we will now open the call up for questions. Operator?

Questions and Answers:

Operator

Thank you. [Operator Instructions] And we'll take our first question from James Rutherford from Stephens, Inc. Please go ahead.

James Rutherford -- Stephens, Inc. -- Analyst

All right. Thanks very much and congratulations on the improvement you're seeing especially in regards to staffing. And actually that's what I wanted to start with the questions and maybe a bit of a clarification I was hoping you could reconcile the comment in -- I think it was Richard's prepared remarks that the company maybe was on average was fully staffed in December. But at the same time you're still seeing a divergence in comps in the quarter I think plus 0.9% on a two-year for the total company and then the ones that are fully staffed over 4%. So are there still some restaurants that are no longer fully staffed? Like what is the percentage of restaurants that are fully and are still a little bit lacking on the staffing side?

Dirk Montgomery -- Chief Financial Officer

Yeah, thanks, James. So the -- we are fully staffed and we're fully staffed as of the end of the quarter in all major markets except for Miami Dade. And so the big spread that we're seeing in comp trends actually is balance the company compared to Miami Dade. So the positive comp trend that we referenced of plus 4.3% versus 2019 and up 16.7% versus 2020 is referencing basically all major markets except for Miami Dade. We are making progress in Miami Dade. As Rich mentioned, we have implemented additional initiatives, additional incentives to increase staffing levels. And those staffing levels -- are continued continuum for, so but we still have some more work to do in Miami Dade, that's not at an adequate level as we said here today.

James Rutherford -- Stephens, Inc. -- Analyst

Okay. That's a helpful clarification. Dirk a bit of a numbers question. What is the two-year traffic growth in the quarter and how that's progressive, even if it's just kind of qualitatively? What I'm getting at is whether you saw any impact on traffic from the pricing action or competitive factors or rollover of stimulus, just a lot of things happening in the market. I'd love to know what would happen to traffic over the course of the quarter.

Dirk Montgomery -- Chief Financial Officer

Yeah, so I mean, we don't have a two-year traffic number broken down, but we can tell you that basically we've seen continued traffic improvement across really all of the channels except for dine-in. And so dine-in has continued to be challenging. We did see a slight increase in dine-in traffic from Q2 to Q3, and our mix has increased slightly in dine-in from Q2 to Q3. But we're still not at the historical level as it relates to the mix of dine-in traffic, which historically the counter sales were -- the dine-in sit down sales were roughly 25% of total sales.

James Rutherford -- Stephens, Inc. -- Analyst

Okay, great. And I'll also ask one margin question, there's lots you could ask on this, but just want to sort of sum up with this overarching philosophy around margins. It sounds like you all are fairly confident in the ability to expand margins into next year. And I'm curious, with commodities being a wild card and to a certain extent I guess labor also with certain restaurants still not fully staffed. Is the confidence because you are committed to pricing at whatever level is necessary to get to that 18% to 20% margin range or is it because you feel like you have enough visibility into the cost picture over the next couple of quarters?

Dirk Montgomery -- Chief Financial Officer

Yeah, I mean, it's probably a little bit of both. I mean, I think as we just think about the pricing action that we have taken and that we have planned -- that pricing action in aggregate, which is of course always subject to flow through assumptions, should be more than adequate to offset the labor cost increases on a run rate basis that we expect over the next year from the wage rate increases that we just took. So we also as we said, the fact that our historical pricing action really now over the last three years has been well below the competitive said. We feel like we can take pricing action and still maintain value perceptions.

James Rutherford -- Stephens, Inc. -- Analyst

Got it. Okay. Actually, I'll slip one more in for Patty if she's there on digital. I just wanted to hear a little bit more about what the digital drive-thru entails? What does that experience exactly like and what kind of impact on the customer experience and then I'll turn it over to the queue. Thanks so much.

Patricia Lopez-Calleja -- Chief Experience Officer

Hi, James. Yes, the digital drive-through experience is two part. We have our on-peak and our off-peak work streams. The on-peak -- the off-peak work streams is we have this beautiful new digital menu board that will have order confirmation, will have a component for upselling and that's what counts. Then that will be our off-peak hours during between lunch and dinner and prior to that and late night. Our on peak which is where we really see those long lines at all of our restaurants, the pod person, the mobile ordering devices that are fairly common now within the industry those with the heavy drive-thrus will have a micro site which is with a QR code that is unique to each consumer.

So when they click on that micro sites they're digital -- their cellphone becomes an order confirmation board. The purpose behind this is two-fold is to make sure that all of our guests are -- they may not be familiar with our entire menu or with our limited time offers can see that and also for accuracy folks are seeing exactly what they're ordering real-time and they could also make their payment on their cellphone as they are placing the order with the -- or with our mobile ordering devices. Then the huge menu boards actually become collateral for app acquisition telling our brand story and for hiring purposes. So they become another way to tell our brand story.

James Rutherford -- Stephens, Inc. -- Analyst

Thanks for that. Very helpful.

Richard Stockinger -- Chief Executive Officer and President

Thanks, James.

Operator

Thank you. The next question comes from Brian Vaccaro with Raymond James.

Brian Vaccaro -- Raymond James -- Analyst

Thanks and good evening. I just wanted to circle back on staffing levels and when you say adequate staffing levels. I'm just curious does that mean that levels are back to where they were pre-COVID back in '19 or is that versus some other target that that might be different versus '19? And then could you also just help quantify how much improvement you saw maybe July, August versus maybe what you're seeing more recently moving through October? Is there a way to quantify that the degree of improvement you've seen?

Dirk Montgomery -- Chief Financial Officer

Sure, Brian so that the targets for staffing have not changed. That the -- we've used the same KPIs we basically measure the -- that the head count that we have on the staff compared to the optimal head count to optimize scheduling. And our target is 80% or higher.

Richard Stockinger -- Chief Executive Officer and President

It's consistent to 2019.

Dirk Montgomery -- Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. And we're back at the 2019 levels. So we've definitely eclipsed where we were at before. I guess that the staffing challenges started kind of around the end of the first quarter beginning of the second quarter. And I'm sorry can you can you repeat the second part of the question?

Brian Vaccaro -- Raymond James -- Analyst

Yeah, it was just the degree to which you saw improvement sort of where were you July and August if there's a way to quantify that from an average staffing level or percentage of stores maybe that were meaningfully understaffed and kind of where that is today, just to frame the level of improvement you've seen over the last three or four months?

Dirk Montgomery -- Chief Financial Officer

Sure. So I mean in the second quarter we were -- total company overall we were in the 70% range in terms of staffing, which and then in the third quarter in total we sequentially improved month-to-month to 80% at the end of the third quarter. And that could -- that improvement continued into the mid-80s in October.

Brian Vaccaro -- Raymond James -- Analyst

All right. Very helpful. I wanted to just clarify and thanks for the comments on your October margin improvement you've seen -- just to make sure we're kind of framing things and on the same page the order of magnitude would you be willing to share where store margins were in October even if preliminary?

Dirk Montgomery -- Chief Financial Officer

No, I mean not -- a couple of comments. Number one we were -- we feel a lot more comfortable with our improvement in wage rates -- total wage rate dollars as a percentage of sales just because October results are still preliminary, but that metric reduced by 200 basis points in October on a run rate basis. So, we believe that we're kind of on our way toward the returning margins to the 18% to 20% range. The balance of the fourth quarter is a little bit noisy. I'm sure, as you all can appreciate because we've got holidays in November and December which tend to make those months a little bit higher from a labor plus dollars as a percentage of revenue perspective. But we feel like our run rate is very much on a trajectory as we head into 2022 to get to the 18% to 20% range that we talked about.

Brian Vaccaro -- Raymond James -- Analyst

Okay. That's helpful. And I guess on commodities, I just wanted to touch base there. Can you help us with where was your commodity inflation in the third quarter? And when you say roughly stable in the fourth quarter, are you saying that you expect your COGS ratio to be similar to what you saw in the third quarter? I think it was 30.7% something like that or are you talking about the inflation rate in the fourth quarter being similar to Q3?

Dirk Montgomery -- Chief Financial Officer

No, the COGS -- the cost of sales is a percentage of revenues. So we expect to see stable cost of sales as a percentage of revenue overall in the quarter. That does not include the price increases that we plan to take because that will be in December most likely and will be kind of in the back half of that period. So it's not going to have a material impact probably but -- and I mean, just in terms of overall commodity trends this year, I mean we have seen and have reflected in our cost, increases in packaging costs like most of the competitive set. So we've seen increases, I'd say packaging is probably the area where we've had the highest increase. We've had some moderate increases in poultry prices. But overall, we expect the cost of sales relationship to sales to be stable in the fourth quarter compared to the third quarter.

Brian Vaccaro -- Raymond James -- Analyst

All right. That's great, and then just the last one for me, could you just elaborate on the progress that you've made in assessing the new unit prototypes and potentially accelerating growth at Pollo? Maybe comment on what guardrails do you have in place on the level of investment you're willing to make here versus say a more meaningful buyback program? And then what's your latest thinking on pursuing company-owned unit growth versus maybe initiating a more meaningful franchise program to fuel that unit growth? Thank you.

Richard Stockinger -- Chief Executive Officer and President

Yeah, I'll take that one. We -- again we are still in the process of testing and testing out in a mock restaurant environment to make sure that the results that we got from the outside engineers are accurate and assuming they're accurate we have an investment, which I think we've said already that it's going to be approximately $1.7-ish-million versus historically well over $2 million, but more importantly, the kitchen lines will be set up differently as a result of the time and motion studies that the engineers have done.

We know that we have significant improvement available to us by setting up the kitchen lines and the lines differently the way our current business is today versus the way it was 20, 30 years ago. So that's what we're going to do first and foremost. We will then try that out in a restaurant. It's going to be here in probably Miami Dade or Broward, it's going to be in that core market, so we can be very close to it. So we're going to take that and we're also going to take that -- what we've learned there and see how we can retrofit some of our existing restaurants.

So example, if we can go from 90 to a 120 cars at lunch per hour its significant growth within our core restaurants. We believe there's a significant opportunity to increase comp store growth and growth -- the restaurant sales without even building new restaurants. But we are looking at that first and foremost and then we'll be looking at potential additional units again testing in different markets within Florida because we have not yet you know got to the point where we're going to expand a significantly in the next year or two. And we will be looking at going outside of Florida but we're not ready at that stage right now.

Dirk Montgomery -- Chief Financial Officer

And I think one of your other questions was around kind of uses of cash. I mean, as we said in our prepared comments, we're taking a very disciplined approach to all these investments that's why we're testing a number of remodels this year and we're evaluating what design features are the most attractive, which ones will drive sales, which ones drive traffic. And we're then going to finalize our plans for 2022 based on those results?

Richard Stockinger -- Chief Executive Officer and President

We're taking a very disciplined approach. We know how important the future of Pollo is when it comes to growth and we want to make sure that we take a disciplined approach based on facts and data tested before we start rolling out significantly within Florida or outside of Florida. And then on the second question on the franchise, we're starting to see a lot of move-in on the licensing, people coming to us on the licensing.

We just opened at Hard Rock Stadium here where the Dolphins play, we'll be opening up one in with the Miami Heat play. We've had several inquiries regarding airports in Florida as well as other transportation centers. So we're going to do that first. Other type of franchising, your typical franchising will wait until we get the test results of the new prototype from a sales to investment margin and then we'll be taking a look at those plans.

Brian Vaccaro -- Raymond James -- Analyst

All right. That's very helpful. Thank you.

Richard Stockinger -- Chief Executive Officer and President

Thanks, Brian.

Operator

Thank you. We'll take our next question from Eddie Reilly with EF Hutton.

Edward Reilly -- EF Hutton -- Analyst

Hey, guys. Thanks for taking my question. I was wondering about the 8% to 9% target on the G&A margin. Do you expect this to come more from revenue growth or is there going to be an absolute reduction in G&A going forward?

Richard Stockinger -- Chief Executive Officer and President

Yeah, there will be an absolute reduction. I mean, we're -- now that we've divested Taco, obviously there are expenses that we can reduce and we can better optimize our overall resource level. And as we said, we're qualifying ideas right now. These are -- the ideas are also by the way, not you know, they're pretty standard, typical -- typical ideas for improving efficiency. We just need to get through the TSA period, and completely qualify the ideas before we start implementation.

Edward Reilly -- EF Hutton -- Analyst

Got it. And then second question for me. I was wondering if you've seen much growth in the form of people joining the loyalty program and downloading the MyPollo! App?

Richard Stockinger -- Chief Executive Officer and President

We haven't done a full court press yet on the loyalty because, frankly we've got so many other things in the hopper that we're working on. The loyalty will follow. That's most likely going to be a strategic initiative sometime in 2022. But we have enough right now. On the app acquisition we are improving, we are increasing the app. We said earlier about the check difference between the app user being 18% higher than the non-app user. So our focus right now is increasing the acquisition of the app. The loyalty will follow probably sometime next year.

Edward Reilly -- EF Hutton -- Analyst

Got you. Got you. And just on greater ticket size are you guys taking a different approach on pricing for dine-in versus other channels?

Dirk Montgomery -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes, to some extent, yes. So we have been and we'll continue to take a different approach with the delivery channel. So we historically have priced delivery at premium. The analytic work that we've done suggests that the sensitivity levels are much lower on delivery customers than they are for non-delivery. And so we do charge a higher price for delivery like our peer group and we continue to test and evaluate that sensitivity level so that we can really optimize it.

Edward Reilly -- EF Hutton -- Analyst

Okay, great. Thanks, guys.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

Duration: 49 minutes

Call participants:

Raphael Gross -- Managing Director

Richard Stockinger -- Chief Executive Officer and President

Dirk Montgomery -- Chief Financial Officer

Patricia Lopez-Calleja -- Chief Experience Officer

James Rutherford -- Stephens, Inc. -- Analyst

Brian Vaccaro -- Raymond James -- Analyst

Edward Reilly -- EF Hutton -- Analyst

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