Marlin and Ray's: A Ruby Tuesday turning point?

The chain desperately needs to give diners a reason to walk through its doors.

By TheStreet Staff May 31, 2012 9:35AM

By Ed Ponsi

Ruby Tuesday (RT) has been one of the lesser lights in the casual dining space. Outshined by larger rivals such as Darden Restaurants (DRI), this smaller chain (market cap $460 million) often gets lost in the shuffle.

Darden created a successful mix of restaurants that includes Red Lobster, Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse. This culinary mix of seafood, Italian and steakhouse restaurants can also be found at OSI Restaurant Partners, the privately held parent of Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill and Bonefish Grill.

The combination is working for Darden, whose stock is up 25% over the past six months. Now, Ruby Tuesday is taking a page from the Darden menu by branching into the seafood space with its new Marlin and Ray's restaurants.

Ruby's chose a handful of locations that did a high percentage of business in seafood and converted them to Marlin and Ray's. The interior looks much like Ruby Tuesdays, but without the salad bar. The atmosphere is very casual (imagine an Applebee's or TGI Fridays as a seafood restaurant). The food is fun and quirky. Instead of rolls, jalapeño cornbread is served with dinner. Drink specials abound.

The new concept could provide a much-needed boost to the stock. Last year was rough for shareholders, marred by poor earnings accompanied by high-volume gaps. That lack of performance has continued into this year, yet the shares aren't cheap -- RT currently trades at 24 times earnings.

Ruby Tuesday recently announced it would close 25 restaurants. Same-store sales have been falling for years. Revenue in the most recent quarter grew by only 1.8%, far below the industry average of 9.4%, and the company's cash flow decreased by 10.64%.

On the brighter side, Ruby Tuesday appears to have formed a base and found support in the $6.40 area. Just two weeks ago, Wells Fargo initiated coverage of the stock with an "outperform" rating, and Raymond James upgraded the shares to "outperform" from "market perform" last week. The company has reduced its long-term debt exposure to $292 million from $344 million.

RT is a long-shot, a lottery-ticket trade. As Ruby Tuesday closes stores and loses market share, it desperately needs to give diners a reason to walk through its doors. It's much too early to tell if the Marlin and Ray's concept will succeed. There are only 10 units in operation, most of which opened within the past few weeks. Marlin and Ray's could be a bust, or it could potentially mark a turning point for this struggling company.

At the time of publication, the author had no positions in any of the securities mentioned.

This complementary article originally appeared in Real Money, a premium investment information service from TheStreet, Inc. Click Here to start your free two week trial of Real Money courtesy of TheStreet.



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