Darden Restaurants, Inc. (DRI), DineEquity Inc (DIN), Panera Bread Co (PNRA): Is Fast Casual the New “Dining Out” Norm?

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Chains rely on business from lunch and dinner customers to succeed, but during the rushed lunch hour, workers often have little time to wait for food to arrive at chains like Red Lobster and Applebee’s. Adding to this is the fact that lunches at both of these chain restaurants can easily cost $10-$20 per person, including tip.

As American consumers have tightened family budgets, these daily lunchtime outings have become too expensive. Restaurants have attempted to compete by offering weekday lunch specials and “2 can dine” deals, but the total bill still manages to clock in at more than $7. All of this causes consumers to search for a less costly option–usually at a dining establishment that doesn’t require a tip.

Losing ground

Darden Restaurants, Inc. (NYSE:DRI)Darden Restaurants, Inc. (NYSE:DRI), parent company of Red Lobster and the Olive Garden, recently reported a drop in annual profit of 12%. The company expects these numbers to remain dismal, as costs from Obamacare will cut into the company’s already-strained profits.

As Darden Restaurants, Inc. (NYSE:DRI) has struggled to continue to attract budget-weary customers, food costs have continued to rise, with the latest challenge coming from a disease impacting shrimp farmed in Asia. The lower prices have brought customers in, but the company still struggles to lure in the lunchtime crowd, looking to spend within the $5-$7 price range rather than the $8-$15.

More struggles

DineEquity Inc (NYSE:DIN), which owns more reasonably-priced chains Applebee’s and IHOP, also gave shareholders bad news at the conclusion of its most recent quarter. Profits for the restaurant chain dropped from $28.6 million to $18.8 million, with revenue dropping an alarming $83.6 million in one year’s time. Part of the reason for the decline is that the company is selling its franchises off to franchisees, but the decline in profits can be chalked up to the same problems plaguing competitors.

Both Applebee’s and IHOP are ideal choices for the lunchtime crowd, with affordable prices and fast turnaround. Like competitors, Applebee’s is aggressively courting customers with its “Pick N Pair Lunches” and lunch combos, but prices still edge up to $10 when the tip is figured in.

Fast casual winning

By contrast, Panera Bread Co (NASDAQ:PNRA) and Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. (NYSE:CMG) are thriving. Panera Bread Co (NASDAQ:PNRA) reported a 34% earnings increase and a 15% rise in revenue in its most recent quarter. Chipotle enjoyed a 13.5% increase in revenue, reporting more than $726 million in sales.

Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. (NYSE:CMG) is currently on a winning streak, having clocked earnings growth of more than 20% for the past five years. The company is expected to enjoy an earnings increase between 17% to 19%, giving it a chance to reach 20% for the sixth year in a row.

The only downfall to Panera Bread Co (NASDAQ:PNRA)’s stock is its price. But with more than 100 new locations opened in 2012 and more than 100 planned for this year, the company’s ability to expand while still logging a 34% earnings increase is impressive. In fact, the company regularly sees earnings growth of more than 20% in a quarter, making it seem like its worth its cost.

Both Panera Bread Co (NASDAQ:PNRA) and Chipotle offer lunchtime-friendly meals with no tip required. While neither chain is immune from rising food costs, consumers know they can still pay less than they’d pay at a casual dining franchise and both companies have thrived during the recession.

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