It isn't easy being a Zoe's Kitchen (NYSE:ZOES) investor these days. Shares of the restaurant operator have been cut in half since peaking at $46.61 two summers ago. Growth is slowing at the chain of the fast-casual restaurants specializing in Mediterranean cuisine, but not to the point where the stock should be trading 51% below its peak value.

Zoe's Kitchen will have a great opportunity to argue its case on Thursday, as that is when it will step up to deliver its financial results for the fourth quarter. The market isn't holding out for much. Analysts see revenue checking in at $62.7 million for the quarter, 18.9% ahead of where it was a year earlier. Nearly 20% top-line growth may seem impressive in the fickle restaurant space, but it would be the worst showing out of Zoe's Kitchen since going public at $15 three years ago.

Slowing growth isn't a surprise or a deal breaker here. Year-over-year revenue growth has decelerated in eight of the past nine quarters. The market's bigger concern is that Zoe's Kitchen as a concept is hitting some growing pains. The fast-casual chain has slightly lowered its guidance in back-to-back quarters. 

Wall Street pros see an adjusted deficit of $0.06 a share for the fourth quarter. Red ink also isn't necessarily a red flag. There is seasonality to Zoe's Kitchen's business, and its weakest period has always been the holiday quarter. The company has posted a loss just twice since going public, and the other two times just happened to be during the fourth quarter. 

A serving tray with a sampler of Zoe's Kitchen food items.

Image source: Zoe's Kitchen.   

Serving suggestion

Zoe's Kitchen has been able to keep posting positive comparable-restaurant sales -- no small feat in this so-called "restaurant recession" that has tripped up many former market darlings. The 2.4% increase in comps during the third quarter was Zoe's Kitchen's weakest showing as a public company, but it keeps its remarkable streak of positive comps (which dates all the way back to 2009) alive. 

There's no chance that Zoe's Kitchen hoses down its guidance for the third quarter in a row, but that's merely a technicality. It will initiate its outlook for 2017 on Thursday afternoon, so there are no numbers to talk down. This doesn't mean that the company will get a free pass this week. If it falls short of where Wall Street is perched -- analysts see revenue rising 19% to $329.2 million for the year ahead -- the stock's likely going to take another hit.

Zoe's Kitchen is a unique player, largely as a result of its regional cuisine. You don't have any other concepts specializing in Mediterranean delicacies at nearly 200 restaurants. There's a distinct gender lean here, as 78% of its customers are female. We're also talking about women on the go, as 53% of the eatery's orders are consumed off-site.

The unit economics are also attractive. The initial investment of $825,000 for a new location pays off with average unit sales volumes topping $1.7 million by the third year, generating a 47% cash-on-cash annual return on its initial investment as long as the unit's margins hold up. This can all change if comps turn negative or operating costs spike, but it's a decent business where the stock may have gotten ahead of the fundamentals at its 2015 peak.

The stock will likely be a mover one way or another following Thursday afternoon's report. The market understands that the fourth quarter is a seasonally sleepy period, but operating trends and its guidance for 2017 will be the real drivers for investors to watch.

Rick Munarriz owns shares of Zoe's Kitchen. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Zoe's Kitchen. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.