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Earnings roundup: Chuy's, El Pollo Loco, Ruth's Chris, Good Times, Bad Daddy's

Smaller publicly owned chains had a more mixed Q1 and April than many of their larger counterparts.
Photograph: Shutterstock

The March and April surge that pushed the sales of many large full-service chains above 2019 levels proved less intense for smaller operations such as Chuy’s and Ruth’s Chris, according to numbers released by those public holdings in recent days. Many of the smaller casual brands saw significant improvements, but not a return to positive same-store sales. Comps were negative despite a pronounced stickiness in off-premise sales, most of the chains attested.

Size didn’t seem to matter for quick-service operations. Same-store sales for El Pollo Loco handily surpassed pre-pandemic levels last month. Even 24-unit Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard generated a 22.9% same-store sales gain for the first quarter, albeit measured against the same period of 2020 rather than 2019.

Here’s a deeper dive into the performance of several second-tier chains year-to-date.

Chuy’s sales top 99% of April 2019 tally

Sales for the Tex-Mex chain’s 94 units climbed to an average of $85,415 per week in April, or just 0.3% below the figure for the same month of 2019. That compares with a typical weekly intake of $69,399 in January. Officials said Chuy’s had difficulty matching the sales gains of bigger brands during the quarter because it uses freestanding tables rather than booths, which don’t require six feet in spacing to meet federal safety protocols if dividers are used.

Takeout and delivery sales remained at 30% of total intake as total unit volumes rose.

Management said a priority going forward will be arming stores with a pay-at-the-table option.

The executives also revealed that a new 5,500-square-foot prototype shaped by the brand’s experiences during the pandemic will become Chuy’s expansion vehicle starting in 2022. “We believe this new prototype will provide the same unique dining experience while still allowing us to better serve our off-premise guests,” CEO Steve Hislop told financial analysts. “We'll have a little bit more convenient to-go area and maybe a little bit of a patio.”

Overall, Chuy’s reported a net income for the first quarter of $6.7 million, compared with a prior-year loss of $12.4 million on revenues of $87,710 million, down 7.2%.

El Pollo Loco bests pre-COVID sales thanks to drive-thrus

Drive-thrus and other off-premise channels are giving El Pollo Loco the needed boost to recover from the pandemic.

Same-store sales for the first quarter in 2021 were up 5.9% systemwide compared to the pre-COVID first quarter of 2019, the fast-casual chicken chain reported late Thursday.

Through April 28, El Pollo’s two-year same-store sales have climbed 13.5%. And on April 1, in honor of National Burrito Day, the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based brand reported its highest sales in a single day.

El Pollo Loco has expanded its test of order-taking tablets to 10 restaurants, a shift that allows drive-thru orders and payments to be taken while cars are in line.

“The drive-thru business is the lion’s share of what’s driving the business right now,” CEO Bernard Acoca told analysts. “We’re slightly below 70% of our business coming through the drive-thru."

For the quarter ended March 31, El Pollo reported total revenue of $107.7 million, compared to $105.2 million during the same period last year.

2019 sales threshold proves elusive for Ruth’s Chris

Unit sales for the high-end steakhouse operation drew closer to 2019 levels each month this year on a comparable basis but still ended April 12.2% behind the pre-pandemic tally for the same period of two years ago. Same-store sales edged 0.7% above the figure for April 2020.

Management of the 149-unit chain said it will focus on resuming development as well as capturing additional sales near-term. It noted that all but two restaurants are now open.

Net income totaled $9 million, compared with a year-ago loss of $3.8 million, on revenues of $87.3 million, down 20.8%.

Both Good Times Restaurants brands post positive sales

The parent of Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar and Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard saw same-store sales increase for both its burger-centric brands during the first quarter, albeit at decidedly different gaits. (The company did not provide comparisons with 2019 figures.)

Bad Daddy’s, a full-service operation with 37 branches, generated a 9.1% gain in comps for Q1. The Good Times brand, a drive-thru-outfitted concept with 24 stores, posted a 22.9% increase.

CEO Ryan Zink called Q1 “a turning point for us” because all of the company’s restaurants were open. He revealed that Good Times’ two brands are about to embrace a number of programs to bolster the recruitment and retention of employees.

The company posted a Q1 net income of $1.6 million, compared with a year-ago loss of $14.5 million, on revenues of $29 million, up 11.5%.

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