Restaurant shares rise on business travel optimism

AP News
Posted: Jan 04, 2010 4:39 PM

Shares of three high-end restaurant chains rose Monday after an analyst boosted ratings on the group, saying the trio is poised for better sales as the expense account set resumes business travel and returns to high-priced menus.

Piper Jaffray analyst Nicole Miller Regan raised her ratings on Ruth's Hospitality Group Inc., the parent company of Ruth's Chris Steak House restaurants, McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant and Morton's Restaurant Group Inc., which owns the Morton's chain of steakhouse restaurants.

The upgrades sent shares of all three higher Monday.

Ruth's shares rose 33 cents, or 15.8 percent, to $2.42, while McCormick & Schmick's rose 57 cents, or 8.2 percent, to $7.53. Morton's shares rose 17 cents, or 5.8 percent, to $3.08.

In research notes on the three, Regan cited improved business at luxury hotels as an early indicator that corporations were loosening the purse strings on business travel and expenses. That should spell good news for the hard-hit fine dining segment that saw customers switch to cheaper competitors _ or stay home entirely _ as the economy worsened.

"That is highly correlated to (the fine dining) segment," she told investors in a research note.

Regan boosted McCormick to "Overweight" from "Underweight" while raising Morton's to "Neutral" from "Underweight." She upgraded Ruth's to "Neutral" from "Underweight."

McCormick & Schmick's, a seafood chain based in Sparks, Md., should begin to see dramatically better results in an important performance measure of sales in locations open at least a year, Regan wrote. Meanwhile, she said menu changes and a new interior design plan for some restaurants should also help the company's profit, along with the addition of new CFO Michelle Lantow, who begins work this week.

Both Chicago-based Morton's and Ruth's, which is based in Heathrow, Fla., are beginning to get more customers, although they're typically spending less than they did before, thanks to fixed-priced menu items.

"However, we firmly believe improving (less negative) traffic trumps negative mix shift," she wrote of the less-expensive items.