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The Curious Case of Chili's

By Nickey Friedman – Jan 30, 2014 at 5:06PM

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Brinker International looks so-so. There's some concern about another Ruby Tuesday situation occurring though Brinker's decision to follow Chipotle Mexican Grill's strategy shows promise.

Brinker International (EAT -0.46%) continues to make new all-time highs following its lukewarm second-quarter results. Its Chili's and Maggiano's chains aren't doing badly at all, but the stock seems more overheated than Brinker's results. Perhaps the market has taken a more forward-looking view and it likes what it sees.

Brinker's results
Brinker might as well be named Chili's. The company owns 1,602 restaurant locations, but over 97% of them are Chili's restaurants while the rest are Maggiano's restaurants. Maggiano's is doing well on its own, but with plans to open only one or two more locations this fiscal year, its results are largely immaterial to the Brinker International story. Any analytical effort should focus on Chili's alone.

On Jan. 22, Brinker reported fiscal second-quarter results. Sales inched up 2.3% to $684.4 million. Systemwide domestic same-store sales ticked up 0.3%. International same-store sales for franchises hopped up 1.4% for the 16th quarter in a row of positive gains. Earnings per share rose 18% to $0.59.

While this doesn't sound too bad, December alone looks much weaker. Overall same-store sales crashed 4.9% while guest traffic took a 6.8% plunge during the month.

Weather or marketing?
The company placed partial blame on "more severe weather" for the shortfall. If that's the case, there haven't exactly been warm and sunny skies across the nation in January either. Around that same time, Chili's began a "more aggressive marketing strategy with multiple messages around innovation, value, and branding." Uh oh, the Ruby Tuesday (RT) hairs on the back of my neck just stood up.

For those unfamiliar with the Ruby Tuesday story, the company changed its marketing image and strategy in a campaign that began in late 2012. From there, Ruby Tuesday saw same-store sales take a nosedive throughout 2013, and net losses piled up. It's always a risk to fix what isn't broken. Anecdotally though, as a frequent Chili's diner and fan myself I'm not too concerned, but the timing makes me feel a bit uneasy. Let's hope that this new strategy doesn't backfire. My personal opinion doesn't necessarily mean the customer base agrees. Brinker, unlike Ruby Tuesday, is claiming positive results.

Tex-Mex yummies
According to the conference call, there's nothing to worry about with Brinker's reimaging program. The company has reimaged 498 new restaurants so far, which saw an average 4% sales lift each. Meanwhile, the company seems to be moving a bit closer to the Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG 0.38%) route with the roll-out of its new "Fresh Mex" offerings. Given the success and wild popularity of Chipotle Mexican Grill, it's hard to blame Brinker. Last quarter, Chipotle Mexican Grill reported a same-store sales increase of 6.2%, an overall revenue increase of 18%, and a diluted earnings per share increase of 17.2%. Maybe Chili's is going in the right direction, and the market likes it.

Foolish final thoughts
On the one hand earnings continue to be strong for Brinker International. On the other hand the large drop in December traffic is uncharacteristic of the company as well as concerning with the "severe weather" explanation seeming slightly suspicious. At the very least, this result hardly justifies new all-time highs.

Personally, I'm a huge fan of the chain for its value, decent food, and fun atmosphere so I hope the company does well. The new menu offers the hope for a potentially exciting growth path if the items resonate with customers even a little like the menu does at Chipotle Mexican Grill. However, between preliminary caution, a weak-ish report, and the risks associated with a new menu, Fools should consider taking a bit of a cautious stance and step outside for the time being. Weather permitting, of course.

Nickey Friedman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Chipotle Mexican Grill. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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