Fifty-two weeks ago, yours truly traded written jabs with fellow Fool Ryan Fuhrmann over the investment prospects of Buffalo Wild Wings (NASDAQ:BWLD). One year on, it's time to see how the real world stacked up ot the arguments of our combatants and the votes of our readers.

Mild. No, hot and spicy!
My bearish position centered on a weak outlook for the economy and consumer spending, along with the fact that you have so darn many restaurants to choose from, anyway. I presented a neat little table that showed the company to have slimmer margins and richer valuation ratios than a slew of its nearest competitors, and told investors to "check back again after the housing bubble pops, though, if the Buffalo is still standing then."

Ryan's bullish stand for the Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation looked at the same factors in a very different light. He said that rising gas prices and interest rates might put pressure on consumer wallets, but that "long-term investors know how to turn short-term pain into long-term gain by taking advantage of an overly pessimistic Mr. Market. Buffalo Wild Wings is gaining respect as a rapidly growing concept, and it should be able to ride out any short-lived industry difficulties."

He then expanded on my table with a column for Return On Invested Capital, arguing that this is a fair metric that shakes out the effects of leverage to make debt-free and heavily indebted companies directly comparable. He did that even though BW3 had the worst ROIC of the bunch by a hairline margin.

And you voters ate this stuff up. At the end of the day, Ryan took the crown with a comfortable 66% of 513 votes, while I had to settle for 21%. 13% just wanted to share that they couldn't pick a winner.

Fresh sauce
So this is where I'd hope to overturn the popular vote with a real-world recount. Florida is my home state, after all. Thusly, I present an updated version of the tables Ryan and I bandied about last year:


Projected Earnings Growth

1-Year Return*

Profit Margin



Buffalo Wild Wings






Brinker (NYSE:EAT)






Applebee's (NASDAQ:APPB)












Ruby Tuesday (NYSE:RT)






Darden (NYSE:DRI)






*Adjusted for dividends.
All data courtesy of Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poors.

Yeah! Take that! No, wait -- this is all wrong!

While Buffalo does still look like the priciest animal in the herd, it's with good reason. The winged bovine runs right at the head of the herd in every other metric here, and the one-year stock returns are almost embarrassingly tasty. That's adjusted for dividends, just to put Buffalo Wild at another disadvantage -- the company doesn't pay out any dividends.

Hindsight takeaway
The real-world performance went Ryan's way too, and just to rub sea salt in my wounds, our CAPS community gives the stock a rock-solid four-star rating, even at these lofty valuations. The beating was so thorough that even I eventually switched sides and bought a few shares, to gleeful jeers from the bulls on the sidelines.

I do still believe that a little bit of debt, when applied with tender loving care to the right situations, can boost earnings growth and shareholder returns. But Buffalo management is wise to build on a solid cash flow base instead, because there is a thorough and detailed long-term plan behind the actions. Don't overbuild in new markets; let the avant-garde locations build buzz for the follow-on wave; make sure regional managers and franchisors know what they're doing.

Here's to Ryan for a job well done -- rare is the duel that ends with both duelists having a beer and habanero-mango hot wings in front of a pre-season football game. But that's what we have here.

Revisit other Foolish restaurant thoughts:

Buffalo Wild Wings is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems pick. Find tomorrow's winners today with a free 30-day trial pass. 

Fool contributor Anders Bylund is a BW3 shareholder but holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. He wants to know what happened to the weck. Lost in Yonkers? You can check out Anders' holdings if you like, and Foolish disclosure is good with fries, but great with Caribbean jerk sauce.