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Has Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD) Lost its Kick?

Buffalo Wild Wings (NASDAQ:BWLD), which has surged 567% over the past decade, has been a tremendous growth story. Its simple business model — serving chicken wings in a casual sports bar environment — has made it one of the fastest growing restaurant chains in the United States. However, mixed fourth-quarter earnings now cast doubt on the company’s ability to continue growing in 2013. Let’s examine the key factors at play.

A fiery fourth quarter

Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings posted earnings of 89 cents per share, or $16.7 million, on revenue of $303.8 million. From the prior year quarter, its bottom line rose 22%, and its revenue surged 38%. This top line growth pushed its annual revenue over $1 billion for the first time in its history. It used its strong revenue growth to expand, adding 62 new locations during the quarter.

Buffalo Wild Wings (NASDAQ:BWLD)While its revenue exceeded the Thomson Reuters’ estimate of $292.4 million, earnings came up short and missed the forecast for 96 cents. Normally, this minor miss would be forgiven by investors, if not for two major problems — rising costs and contracting margins.

Costs and margins

One key event caused Buffalo Wild Wings to miss earnings estimates. During the fourth quarter, the price of wholesale chicken wings rose to $2.07 per pound, up 45.8% from $1.42 per pound a year earlier. This was attributed to producers breeding larger chickens for more meat, which has limited the amount of available single wings.

This is especially dangerous since Buffalo Wild Wings’ profit margin is already at a slim 5.67%. Even worse, its operating margin has plunged 10.36% over the past 12 months. Therefore, the company has no choice but to raise prices to preserve its margins. In the past three months, the company raised prices by over 4%, passing the costs onto customers.

So far, this strategy hasn’t caused a slowdown in sales volume, which means the company still holds pricing power. However, if chicken wing prices increase even more, further price hikes could be poorly received and cause a slowdown in store traffic.

Same-store sales are still spicy … or are they?

Buffalo Wild Wings’ fourth quarter same-store sales numbers were also strong, with restaurant-owned locations posting a gain of 5.8%, while franchised locations gained 7.4%.

While those numbers are strong, Buffalo Wild Wings confused analysts with two sets of numbers for its same-store sales for the first six weeks of fiscal 2013, providing investors with a murky picture for its growth so far this year.

Its initial 2013 numbers were extremely disappointing, with restaurant-owned locations posting a decline of 2.8% while franchise-owned ones slid 1.7%.

But the company also offered revised estimates, which extended the period by an additional week, since the previous fiscal year included an extra 53rd week that caused a rare overlap. That additional week, which included several major college football championships and the Super Bowl, was extremely important, since Buffalo Wild Wings’ restaurants are promoted as sports bar restaurants.

Including that additional week, same-stores sales at restaurant-owned locations and franchise-owned ones rose 2.6% and 1.6%, respectively — positive growth that is still far below its fourth quarter numbers.