Shifting Consumer Preferences Favor Food with Integrity Bullets Not Restaurant Shares

Shifting Consumer Preferences Favor Food with Integrity Bullets Not Restaurant Shares

It’s no secret that the restaurant industry is having a tough time, given restaurant traffic data and less-than-flattering industry articles as it grapples with several consumer-centric issues. We received yet another indication of that restaurant pain last week when Sonic Corp. (SONC) reported a 7.4 percent decline in same-store-sales. The management team chalked up the drop to “a sluggish consumer environment, weather headwinds and share losses…” amid a “very intense” competitive environment. Predictably, the company is retooling its menu offering and even though it’s late to the party, it is also jumping on the smartphone bandwagon.

Stepping back there is a larger issue that Sonic and other restaurants have to contend with — declining restaurant traffic that is due not only to lower prices at grocery stores but also to the shift in consumer preferences to healthier foods. That preference shift is toward natural and organic offerings as well as paleo, gluten-free and others and that’s one of the reason’s we’ve favored shares of United Natural Foods (UNFI) as grocers expand their offering to meet that demand.

Even as companies like Coca-Cola (KO) and PepsiCo (PEP) tinker with their carbonated soft drink formulas to reduce sugar, the new enemy, they have to do so without sacrificing taste. Some investors may remember the whole New Coke experiment back in 1985, which was ultimately a failure given the different taste. As Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and even Dr. Pepper Snapple (DPS) look to reformulate to ride either the lower sugar or better-for-you shift, it bodes rather well for flavor companies like International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) or Sensient Tech (SXT).

That shifting preference has led several restaurant companies such as Panera (PNRA) and Darden’s (DRI) Olive Garden to change up their menus in order to lure eaters. Over the last several years, Panera has been working to eliminate artificial additives in its food to make it “cleaner” for consumers and in 2015 it released a “no-no” list of more than 96 ingredients that it vowed to either remove from or never use in food. Darden is shifting to lighter fare recipes that have far fewer calories than prior ones. Even Chipotle (CMG), the one-time poster child for our Food with Integrity investing theme until its food safety woes last year, has come to fulfill its pledge of using no added colors, flavors or preservatives of any kind in any of its ingredients.

These are all confirming signs of our Food with Integrity investing theme that Lenore Hawkins and I talked about on last week’s podcast. Here too, with these new menu offerings, it’s a question of how can restaurants offer healthier alternatives without sacrificing flavor? To us, the answer is found in International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), McCormick & Co. (MKC) and Sensient shares as well as other flavor companies.

Against that backdrop — the shift to eating not only at home but eating food that is better for you — we have serious doubts when it comes to the quick service restaurant industry. According to the data research firm Sense360, which analyzed data from 140 chains and 5 million limited-service visits, 38 percent of heavy quick-service restaurant users reduced their visits in February, compared with the period before Christmas. Not exactly an inspiring reason to revisit shares of Sonic or several other QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) chains like McDonald’s  (MCD) or Wendy’s (WEN) at a time when bank card delinquency rates are climbing, subprime auto issues are doing the same, student debt levels loom over consumers and real wage growth has been meager at best.

While more people eating at home is a positive for Kroger (KR) and Wal-Mart (WMT), our “buy the bullets not the gun” approach continues to favor shares of McCormick and International Flavors & Fragrances in particular.  For those unfamiliar with “buy the bullets, not the gun” it’s a strategy that looks to capitalize on select industry suppliers that serve the majority of the industry with key components or other inputs. Shining examples of this strategy in the tech industry have included Intel (INTC), Qualcomm (QCOM) and recently acquired ARM Holdings. Common traits among them include a diverse customers base and strong competitive position with a leading market position for their products.

The same holds true for both McCormick and International Flavors & Fragrances, which are also benefitting from our Rise & Fall of the Middle Class investing theme.

  • Our price target on MKC shares is $110; we’d be more inclined to scale into the shares closer to $95.
  • Our price target on IFF shares remains $145; as new data becomes available, we’ll continue to evaluate potential upside to that price target. 
United Natural Foods Reports In-line Quarterly Results, Still Riding the Fresh & Natural Wave

United Natural Foods Reports In-line Quarterly Results, Still Riding the Fresh & Natural Wave

Last night Food with Integrity company United Natural Foods (UNFI) reported in-line quarterly earnings of $0.50 per share on revenue that rose 11.7% year over year to hit $2.29 billion. Despite that double-digit revenue growth, revenue for the quarter fell short of expectations by $50 million — not a big deal in our view, but we suspect some will look past the double-digit growth and focus on this being the second consecutive quarter where revenue fell just shy of expectations. To us that shortfall is overshadowed by the more than 16% increase in earnings before interest tax & depreciation (EBITDA) and the 12% increase in net income — we always like to see profits growing faster than revenue as it denotes margin expansion.

Given the continued deflationary environment the food and grocery industry is contending with, all in all, we were rather pleased with United Natural’s quarterly results as it continues to benefit from shifting consumers preferences and reap the benefits from cost savings initiatives and synergies with companies acquired in the last year. With those deflationary pressures poised to continue, the company is undertaking another initiative that will shed roughly 265 jobs in the current quarter, with benefits to be had in following ones. This latest effort is expected to result in pre-tax charges of $3.5-$4 million.

Even after this new initiative the company guided 2017 in line with expectations:

  • fiscal 2017 revenue between $9.38-$9.46 billion, an increase of approximately 10.7%-11.7% over fiscal 2016, and consensus expectations of $9.4 billion;
  • adjusted EPS in the range of $2.53 to $2.58 vs. the current consensus forecast of $2.54 per share.

Stepping back, we continue to see consumer shifting preferences to fresh, organic and natural products. Last week, grocery chain Kroger (KR) commented that it continues to “focus on the areas of highest growth like natural and organic products” and we’ve seen companies like Costco Wholesale (COST) continue to expand their fresh and natural offering to boost basket size and shrink time between visits. Against that backdrop that is not occurring at just Kroger and Costco, we continue to like United Natural’s strategy to expand its footprint, including its UNFI Next program that looks for new products and emerging brands and its e-commerce platform.

  • Our price target on UNFI shares remains $60, which offers more than 30% upside from current levels. As such we are keeping our Buy rating intact.