What happened

Shares of well-known restaurant chains The Cheesecake Factory (NASDAQ:CAKE), Dave & Buster's Entertainment (NASDAQ:PLAY), and BJ's Restaurants (NASDAQ:BJRI) are soaring 23%, 34%, and 26% higher, respectively, after highly promising data on a leading COVID-19 vaccine hit the news feeds.

So what

Shares of Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) also jumped more than 10% higher after releasing information that its clinical trial showed its leading vaccine candidate was more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 in participants who had no evidence of prior infection. The news was a breath of fresh air for brick-and-mortar businesses that have been clobbered by social distancing and more cautious consumer behavior amid the pandemic. The Dow jumped 4.6% in early trading, followed by a strong 3.5% move higher in the S&P 500.

CAKE Chart

CAKE data by YCharts.

Let's take a second to recap each of the restaurants soaring this morning. The Cheesecake Factory is an example of how a company can adapt in times of adversity, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. It was able to recapture roughly 90% of prior-year annualized sales volumes during the fourth quarter. It achieved that strong number despite social distancing and more cautious consumers because it focused on its off-premise sales strategy, enabling diners to pick up or have food delivered; off-premise sales generated roughly 40% of the sales mix. Just as powerful was management's note that once-cautious consumers seemed eager to return despite dine-in capacity restrictions and rising cases of the virus -- although we could see rising case numbers impact future results.

pumpkin cheesecake on a plate

Image source: Getty Images.

Dave & Buster's jumped higher than the other two stocks in this group simply because it's also been the hardest hit. Because the company relies on gaming for a substantial part of its business, and because many of its stores remain closed, its September comparable sales were down 62%. Dave & Buster's warned investors in September that mounting pressures from the pandemic could force it to file for bankruptcy protection, although it was able to boost liquidity with a private offering of $550 million of senior secured notes due in 2025.

BJ's Restaurants hasn't adapted as well as Cheesecake Factory, but it has managed to mitigate far more of the negative impacts from COVID-19 than Dave & Buster's. More specifically, BJ's Restaurants' second quarter posted a 60% decline in comparable sales, which improved to only a 30% drop in comparable sales during the third quarter. The restaurant and brewhouse's improvements are impressive when one considers that early in the third quarter, it was still operating with fewer than 70% of its dining rooms open and working with capacity limitations in many areas. Part of its success came from the ability to build roughly 100 temporary outdoor patios, which was a great move to provide social distance-friendly spaces for consumers amid the pandemic.

Now what

Pfizer's vaccine showing 90% effectiveness against COVID-19 is a massive boost to beaten-down restaurant stocks across the nation. But investors would be wise to temper the short-term optimism with the realization that businesses must still survive many more months before the world comes close to pre-COVID-19 levels of traffic and consumption.

However, we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel, and for investors who own shares of quick-to-adapt companies like Cheesecake Factory -- which could very well exit the pandemic with a higher-margin revenue mix and a leaner cost structure -- or BJ's Restaurants, the worst might be over. But investors would also be wise to continue doing plenty of due diligence before investing in restaurant stocks, because we're not quite there yet.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.