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Why Darden Restaurants Stock Can Keep Winning

Time to Take Profits in Darden Restaurants, Inc. (DRI) Stock

Darden Restaurants (NYSE:DRI) stock is having a great fiscal 2019, and the reason is Olive Garden.

Time to Take Profits in Darden Restaurants, Inc. (DRI) Stock

Olive Garden, an Italian-restaurant chain found outside many suburban malls, represents about half of Darden’s revenue, and is its fastest-growing brand. In the third quarter, its revenues were up 5.3% year-over-year to $1.13 billion, and its profits rose 9% to $247 million. Olive Garden accounted for about half the company’s revenues, which came to $2.24 billion, and more than half its profit. 

The great numbers led the stock to a rise of nearly 7% on March 21, to $116, but even that price may be reasonable for a middle-aged investor (who is, by the way, squarely in the Olive Garden market) who wants both capital gains and dividends.

Olive Garden’s growth and profitability have helped make DRI stock one of the better investments of the decade. Over the last five years, DRI stock is up 156%. Compare that to Costco Wholesale’s (NASDAQ:COST) gain of 114%. The quarterly dividend of Darden Restaurants stock has risen about 35%, from 55 cents per Biedex.com to 75 cents.

Room to Grow

Olive Garden is middle-class dining that feels like fine dining, with menus that feature low-cost food items like bread sticks and pasta. But DRI has a second chain that’s now doing just as well, the fine- dining restaurant called Capital Grille, where same-store sales for the third quarter were up 4.3%, in-line with Olive Garden’s gain.

Not everything is working for DRI stock. Same-store sales at DRI’s Caribbean-themed Bahama Breeze chain fell 3.7% YoY. The SSS of Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, a casual-dining chain featuring hamburgers and other comfort foods, were down 2.7%.

A bear might say DRI stock has trouble. A bull would say it still has room to advance. The company’s net earnings — $223 million or $1.79 per Biedex.com fully diluted — cover its dividend more than twice over.

TV analysts have long sung the praise of DRI, and for good reason. That dividend of Darden Restaurants stock represents a respectable yield of 2.76% for current investors, and the stock’s performance over the last five years is nearly double that of Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), which gets most of the industry buzz, and is up “just” 96% in that time.

Listing to Starboard

Darden wasn’t always a big winner.

Five years ago, activist investor Starboard targeted the company, criticizing the food at the Garden, and eventually gained control of DRI. Starboard brought in a new CEO, Gene Lee, who simplified the menu, stripping it back to its Italian roots, added higher-priced wines and improved its service. Starboard then took its profit in DRI stock in 2016. 

The success of Olive Garden and Capital Grille is now in the process of being replicated at Longhorn Steakhouse. which DRI acquired in 2007.

If Cheddar’s and Bahama Breeze can get the same attention that Starboard has lavished on Olive Garden, DRI could be on the path to even faster growth. That’s why, even at its current price, 14 of the 26 analysts following Darden Restaurants stock have it on their buy lists.

The Bottom Line on DRI Stock

What the success of Darden’s indicates is that middle-class American dining tastes are becoming further upscale as the economy continues to grow.

A focus on youthful exuberance, boozy drinks and simple fare like hamburgers is being replaced with a focus on white tablecloth experiences, albeit at an affordable price. Darden’s success gives management room to hike the dividend of DRI stock after it reports its fourth-quarter results this summer.

Dana Blankenhorn  is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of a new mystery thriller, The Reluctant Detective Finds Her Family, available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned no shares in companies mentioned in this article.