Restaurant Finance Monitor
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We have written many times of our admiration for this company, founded by the legendary Danny Meyer, in terms of the employee culture, operating skills, and their successful management of an extremely aggressive expansion plan. The “cult” of Shake Shack goes far beyond their NYC roots, and openings literally worldwide have supported this notion.

In a nutshell: when a stock is “priced for perfection” ($37) at over 70x calendar 17 earnings and over 60x estimated ’18 earnings, all operating parameters have to be “in gear”, hopefully accelerating, certainly not decelerating. That means: same store sales and traffic, unit growth rate, store level margins, new unit “productivity” of sales and margins.

We don’t have time here to go into all the details of the current results, but in a nutshell: reality is setting in:

Management has continually pointed out that AUVs away from NYC will be closer to $3M annually than the incredible $7M/store within their hometown. It was pointed out that store level EBITDA would be closer to 20% rather than the previous 30% range, at the lower levels. Analysts, and investors heard this, but haven’t wanted to exactly believe this, as  new stores continued, until recently, to open materially above $3M, and average volumes held close to $5M. We will come back to this parameter shortly.

Yesterday, the third quarter report met estimates of earnings, same store sales were down, but a little less than expected, due to menu price increases, traffic was down more, but the expansion rate was increased for next year. Labor costs are up, as expected, especially since SHAK prides themselves on treating employees very well. Overall store level margins are expected to contract further, and G&A expense will not decline as a percent of sales due to the acclerated rate of company store expansion (35-40%) on the base. All of this could be “accepted” by analysts and investors, but here’s the rub:

Each quarter the Company tells us what the weekly AUVs were for domestic company operated stores. This is the way it has gone:

Q3’16    $103,000     Q3’15   $103,000               even

Q4’16     $90,000       Q4’15    $89,000               +1.1%

Q1’17      $86,000      Q1’16    $90,000               -4.5%

Q2’17       $92,000      Q2’16    $102,000            -9.8%

Q3’17       $91,000      Q3’16    $103,000            -11.7%

Clearly, new units are opening “lower”, by our calculation, at about $3.3M. Analysts explored this development on the conference call, and the company confirmed that this range applies, has been predicted all along. The supplemental slides showed that the cash on cash return for a store at $2.8M -$3.2M is 14% in the first year(after $400,000 of pre-opening expense) and 34% thereafter. While more than acceptable, this is a sobering reality compared to the 56% year one cash on cash return for a $5.0M unit, with 79% thereafter. Since the aggressive expansion plan is obviously focused on markets away from NYC, analysts have to assume that the margins will more rapidly approach the lower numbers than they had previously modeled. This is especially true since management was very clear that labor expenses will continue higher, commodities will provide no relief, and corporate G&A will be ratcheted upward to support growth and technology requirements.

In summary: Only the growth rate, of units, is “in gear”, accelerating in fact. Same store sales and traffic are challenged, which is an industry wide issue, store level margins at existing stores won’t improve and will be materially lower at new stores, and G&A won’t be leveraged in the short term. Worst of all, new stores are opening at the previously predicted lower volumes, which removes the possibility of earnings surprises on the upside. A case can also be made that a growth rate, for company stores, of this magnitude, has its own set of dangers, in addition to the more predictable unit level challenges. Investors and analysts have appropriately, in our view,  reacted cautiously to the latest news.