While all the focus has been on the Federal Reserve over the past week, and stocks overall have paused for breath, companies like Darden Restaurants (DRI, Weiss Ratings: B) are being rewarded for doing the good work of capitalism: Growing, building, expanding, finding efficiencies, and ultimately expanding earnings.
A solid quarterly report last week has unleashed a torrent of buying interest in DRI, operator of the Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze, and Capital Grille restaurants, among others. Shares have gone near-parabolic, pushing off of the uptrend line started back in July. They are now up 60 percent from last year’s lows.
Not a bad run for a slinger of breadsticks and t-bones. I actually have lunch at the Capital Grille on my block in Seattle fairly regularly, and despite being part of a chain, it succeeds in its aim to feel more like a private club — with excellent service, very good food and surprisingly fair prices.
The catalyst for the recent advance was a solid fiscal third quarter earnings report in which the company reported earnings of 99 cents per share vs. the 84 cents analysts were expecting. The beat was driven by lower expenses.
Although the turnaround efforts at Olive Garden continue, the rest of the company’s portfolio is running strong with an assist by its real estate monetization efforts — a process aided by which it sells and then leases back the land it owns, freeing up capital to make investments and pay down debt.
|Darden’s family of restaurant brands includes some of the most recognizable names in full-service dining.|
Additional cost cutting through technology adoption is coming down the pike, with management identifying another $100 million in cost savings, with $30 million set to be realized this year, another $50 million in 2016, and the balance in 2017. The Telsey Advisory Group believes that these cost savings could be enough to offset any increase in rent expense from lease back transactions — making it a win-win situation.
Miller Tabak highlighted the company’s pursuit of a consumer “barbell” strategy of attracting both value-seekers as well as those seeking a high-end experience. The middle area has been soft, explaining the company’s decision to dump the Red Lobster franchise a couple of years ago.
Credit Suisse analysts expect this to result in a 15 percent boost to 2016 and 2017 earnings. As a result, earnings per share are expected to grow 27 percent in 2016 and an additional 11 percent in 2017. Analysts are busily raising their price targets, with Oppenheimer looking for $75 while RBC Capital Markets is looking for $70.
The additional consumer purchasing power from lower gas prices is playing a role here as well. Combine good food with the relentless application of technology to reduce costs, improve marketing and provide better service, and you have a winning combination. And when you toss in a 3 percent+ dividend yield, DRI could be a worthwhile consideration for your portfolio.