Are you looking for an appetizing stock to investigate further? Consider Darden Restaurants
Critical to the company's long-term success, however, are its younger, internally developed concepts -- Bahama Breeze and Smokey Bones. Neither was exactly a Louisville Slugger in the recent quarter; the former posted a marginal 1.7% increase in same-store sales, while the latter saw a decline of 3.7%. To get a better handle on these prospects, and what they may contribute to Darden over the next five to 10 years, look no further than the company's latest quarterly earnings conference call. Bodhi Zappa and Hank Schofield have agreed to join me in this investigation.
Can Bahama Breeze stir up a tropical storm?
Jeremy: In the call, CEO Clarence Otis emphasized the importance of being a "multibrand" company to withstand today's competitive environment. Darden's strategy is to "realize the potential" of its current brands while simultaneously seeking to acquire additional concepts. One of its current brands, Bahama Breeze, posted quarterly comps that were neither disastrous nor Earth-shatteringly impressive. You'd expect a younger, smaller concept like this one to do a little better than low single-digits in comps. Bodhi, what's your read on the situation?
Bodhi: Not every concept will go gangbusters like Chipotle
Hank: But can management make Bahama Breeze profitable for the parent company? For FY 2006, the concept only broke even, with profitability weighed down by higher general and administrative expenses [G&A]. Management believes that the increased G&A will help fuel sustainable growth in the future. It's planning to "restart modest new unit growth in fiscal 2008." For fiscal 2006, Darden expects earnings from the concept to continue improving.
Jeremy: Otis indicated that the company is seeing some positive indicators in recent quarters out of Bahama Breeze, with improving economics, guest-count growth, and superior guest satisfaction. For these reasons, the company has decided to add more units to the fold in 2008, with the expectation that the concept as it currently stands could eventually expand to 150 or so units nationwide.
While things appear to be on the up-and-up with Bahama Breeze, the same can't be said for Smokey Bones. Bodhi, is the situation salvageable?
No meat on Smokey Bones?
Bodhi: In some ways, Darden is facing the same problem with Smokey Bones as it has with Bahama Breeze -- the menus were too narrow, limiting its appeal to a broader audience. The company hopes that a shift away from a BBQ-centric menu will help increase customer traffic. Additionally, Darden aims to improve guest satisfaction and increase promotional support for the concept in the upcoming year. In fiscal 2007, management believes that these three areas will help boost sales.
Hank: Sales may improve, but don't expect Smokey Bones to be profitable any time soon. The concept posted operating losses in both 2005 and 2006, and profitability in 2007 is unlikely when you hear about some of the changes management is contemplating. President and COO Drew Madsen stated that "change is clearly necessary" for the concept. Beyond plans to add non-BBQ items and remove certain BBQ items on the menu, Madsen indicated that a name change may also be in the works. The company will test "several remodeled restaurants starting in the second quarter of FY2007" and will limit new unit growth to a handful.
Bodhi: The concept may not turn profitable this year, but management sounds very comfortable with its prospects down the road. Madsen said that given the similarities to challenges they faced with Bahama Breeze and Red Lobster, the management team is "confident" about the current restructuring plans for Smokey Bones, asserting that the long-term opportunity for the concept remains "substantial."
Hank: Personally, I'd be more confident if I had a better sense of where Darden is steering this concept. Madsen indicated that the company wasn't "moving it into the bar and grill space," but rather "broadening it beyond barbecue." For example, the ribs will stay on the menu, but won't "define the menu." My best read is that it simply becomes another Texas Roadhouse
Bodhi: Given the recent success of Texas Roadhouse, I can't see how that's exactly a bad thing. It's better to emulate a winner than invent a loser.
Jeremy: Olive Garden and Red Lobster have been carrying the load for Darden in recent quarters, but the parent company still holds out hope for its other concepts. Bahama Breeze appears to be on the rebound, and revolutionary-level changes under way for its BBQ concept may finally breathe life into Smokey Bones.
In addition, Darden saw encouraging first-year test results on a new concept called Seasons 52. Once the company goes through a second year with the new concept, it will have a better read on whether sales are sustainable. Finally, look for Darden to make an acquisition or two over the next few years, if the right opportunity presents itself.
Add it all together, and the parent company may still find the multi-brand strength it has been searching for, unlocking potential hidden value for long-term shareholders.
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Fool contributor Jeremy MacNealy has no financial interest in any company mentioned.