September restaurant survey data indicated a 1.2% improvement in same-store sales (SSS), while the third quarter had an overall increase in SSS of 1.2%. This quarterly result represents the strongest sales growth rates for restaurants in the past three years and is the first quarter since the fourth quarter of 2015 in which all three consecutive months were positive.
Even though the industry appeared stronger due to hurricanes in Texas and Florida in the previous year, sales growth was impressive across the entire country. All geographic regions reported positive sales growth throughout both September and the third quarter as a whole, with 76% of all designated market areas (“DMAs”) posting positive growth.
Although the industry generated positive sales growth, restaurants experienced a 1.4% decline in same-store traffic in September. While this is an improvement from earlier in the year, it still indicates that restaurants are likely far from a true long-term recovery. Even though the third quarter experienced a 1.3% decline in same-store traffic, this represented the best quarterly result in the past three years.
Even as sales hint at a recovery, the reality is that restaurants opened for more than one year continue to lose guests. It is only through rising guest checks that restaurants have been able to post organic top-line growth. The fact that this is the best traffic quarter in the past three years highlights the continued market share battle for guest traffic.
As the economy nears full employment, with the unemployment rate dropping to 3.7% in September, recruiting and retaining employees remains a major concern for operators. After years of continuous increases, turnover rates for both hourly employees and restaurant managers have dropped slightly in recent months. Sustaining the reduction of historically high turnover rates and weathering the ongoing struggle with staffing for sales growth will be crucial parts of restaurant operators’ strategy discussions as they head into 2019.
Consolidation Cycle Continues with Take-Private Acquisitions Front and Center
Publicly traded restaurant companies being taken private for strategic purposes by both restaurant holding companies and private equity firms has become increasingly popular within the restaurant space recently. Over the past two years, there have been 11 take-private transactions which have resulted in the removal of millions of EBITDA and billions of market capitalization from the public markets, according to CapitalIQ and S&P Global Market Intelligence. In many instances, these take-private transactions have been led by strategic consolidators looking to leverage existing infrastructure and resources. Strategic acquirers look to capitalize on their many competitive advantages, such as access to large, scalable franchisee networks, expertise in advertising and promotions (including aggregate ad-buy), purchasing power with suppliers, and operational and back office infrastructure. In today’s competitive environment where restaurants are experiencing margin pressures from a number of directions (labor, real estate, etc.), leveraging one’s overhead can be one of the most effective ways to drive net profitability margins. As a result, many restaurant concepts have been bought out at significant premiums to stock price and double-digit EBITDA multiples, while also providing the benefit of taking a longer-term view and improving performance outside the scrutiny of the public eye.
This trend has been driven by a confluence of factors. The Initial Public Offering (“IPO”) market for restaurants has been virtually nonexistent in recent years, and with the oversaturation of units contributing to the flat to declining traffic and SSS figures plaguing the industry, stock prices and valuations have retreated from their highs. This has led to strategic and financial acquirers finding value opportunities in both performing and underperforming assets. The low interest rate environment and robust debt financing markets have made financing these transactions relatively inexpensive, helping to boost deal activity and valuations across the sector.
Roark Capital has been a very active player in the restaurant sector, having made two substantial acquisitions within the past year to add on to its existing investment in Arby’s. In November 2017, they acquired Buffalo Wild Wings for $2.9 billion, constituting a 38% premium on the previous day’s stock price and an approximate 11x EBITDA multiple. Roark combined Arby’s and Buffalo Wild Wings into a newly formed holding company, Inspire Brands, led by veteran CEO Paul Brown. Inspire continues to be on the hunt for additional brands to add to its holdings, and in September 2018 it announced its acquisition of Sonic Corp. for $2.3 billion, representing a 19% premium and a 16x EBITDA multiple.
Focus Brands, another portfolio company of Roark Capital, which operates and franchises Cinnabon, Carvel and Auntie Anne’s, among others, acquired smoothie chain Jamba Juice for $205 million in August 2018. This amounted to a 16% premium and a 14x EBITDA multiple.
Also in August 2018, Cava Group announced its acquisition of Zoe’s Kitchen for $300 million, representing a premium of 33% and a 15x EBITDA multiple. The acquisition resulted in the combination of two of the largest players in the fast casual Mediterranean segment. The deal was financed with a significant equity investment led by Boston-based Act III Holdings, an investment firm created by Ron Shaich, founder and former CEO of Panera Bread, as well as The Invus Group, SWaN & Legend Venture Partners, and Revolution Growth.
Earlier this year, Rhône Capital beat out Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group and took Brazilian steakhouse chain Fogo de Chão private in February 2018 for $560 million, representing a 26% premium and an 11x EBITDA multiple, and Bravo Brio Restaurant Group was taken private by industry veteran Bradley Blum and Brazil-based GP Investments in a $100 million transaction. The Bravo Brio transaction resulted in the formation of a new restaurant holding company called FoodFirst Global Restaurants, which is now actively seeking to add additional brands to its holdings.
JAB Holdings made the biggest splash from a holding company perspective with its acquisition of Panera Bread for $7.5 billion in April 2017, to complement its recent acquisitions of U.S.-based breakfast and coffee companies Krispy Kreme and Keurig. Following the Panera Bread acquisition, JAB doubled down with add-on acquisitions of Au Bon Pain and Pret A Manger.
Other recent take-private transactions in 2017 have included Restaurant Brands International’s $1.8 billion acquisition of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen for a 27% stock premium and a 20x EBITDA multiple, NRD Capital’s $314 million acquisition of Ruby Tuesday, and Golden Gate Capital’s $565 million acquisition of Bob Evans Restaurants.
The most recent take-private acquisition in the sector (November 2018) is Durational Capital Management and The Jordan Company’s announced acquisition of Bojangles for $593 million, representing a 15% premium to the prior day’s stock price and 40% to when the company first announced it was exploring strategic alternatives. Continuing on the take-private trend, Papa Murphy’s announced that it would be evaluating strategic alternatives, including a possible sale of the take-and-bake pizza chain. The announcement came on the heels of multiple years of SSS declines, including a systemwide SSS decline of 2.1% for the third quarter.
Overall, the restaurant industry has experienced considerable strategic consolidation in the past two years as a result of both take-private and private secondary transactions, and this trend will likely continue into the year ahead. Accretive acquisitions have proven to produce many impactful advantages and synergies. This benefit coupled with that many private equity firms and large strategic holding companies possess a surplus of cash and access to relatively inexpensive debt, the opportunities for strategic consolidation will likely remain plentiful.
Source: Nation’s Restaurant News, TDn2K’s Black Box Intelligence report and The Wall Street Journal.