By Beth Kowitt, writer
FORTUNE -- Expectations are so high for Noodles & Company (NDLS) that when the company reported earnings for the first time as a public company Thursday, the stock has dropped despite an 18.2% increase in revenues and earnings per share of $0.13, a penny higher than analyst estimates. The Colorado-based restaurant has now had 29 out of 30 consecutive quarters of positive same-store sales, a closely watched industry metric.
Noodles has the numbers to justify high hopes, but a good deal of interest in the company stems from consumers' healthy appetite for the fast casual sector, a segment of the market that falls between fast food (i.e. McDonald's (MCD) and Wendy's) and casual dining (i.e. Red Lobster and Applebee's). Companies in the space like Noodles and Panera (PNRA) have responded to diners' demands around customization of their meals, healthier options, a less-than-$10 price point, and control of their time.
"Fast casual is hitting on so many of those trends right now," says Jefferies analyst Andy Barish. That's helped fast casual grow while the rest of the industry has matured and even shrunk, he adds.
Investors want a piece of the action since there's not much growth in consumer businesses overall, says Wedbush analyst Nick Seytan, and because Noodles is the first IPO in the fast casual space since Chipotle went public in 2006 (CMG). When Noodles went public on June 28 -- the first restaurant IPO of the year -- the stock doubled in its inaugural day of trading. Analysts say that level of interest suggests investors are wondering whether Noodles can be the next Chipotle, which has historically been a Wall Street darling.
CEO Kevin Reddy, who joined Noodles in 2005 from Chipotle, says that while he understands comparisons to the Mexican food chain from an investor's standpoint, the two are very different from a consumer's perspective. Most fast casual sectors have four or five direct competitors -- including Chipotle in the Mexican category -- but Noodles thinks of itself as a "category of one." "We feel we can bridge consumer needs from all those different sectors," Reddy says.
The company positions itself as "Your World Kitchen," offering noodle dishes from multiple types of cuisine -- Pad Thai, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Mac & Cheese. Nicole Miller Regan of Piper Jaffray says that helps erase the customers' veto vote when deciding what to eat because having a noodle as a staple means anything can go on it. "They don't alienate anyone because of the cuisine," she says.
Reddy and his team have broadened Noodle's menu in recent years to include soups, salads, and sandwiches. The company is split between lunch and dinner with no immediate plans for breakfast. To-go orders account for about 35% of the business.
Noodles also doesn't have what Reddy calls the evil, less healthy fast-food version of itself (think fast-food hamburger shops vs. better burger concepts), which is a benefit in terms of competition but challenging in trying to communicate its model. There is no easy immediate comparison.
Noodles has about 350 restaurants but has plans to open 2,500 in the U.S., which, according to Mary Chapman of industry research firm Technomic, would put it at around the same reach as Jack in the Box. Reddy says having that kind of growth potential left in the U.S. alone is very rare.
As the popularity of the fast casual space has grown, Noodles faces competition from all sides. Casual dining restaurants have tried to offer lower price points and limited time offers, while fast-food chains have turned to healthier menu items and broader offerings at higher prices.
Reddy thinks he can compete with both segments. Noodles isn't much more expensive than several fast-food options and is reasonably quick, he says. It also is similar to casual dining in that it delivers meals to customers at a table on china with silverware, but with the value of fast casual. (The company has a no tipping policy.)
With its roots in Colorado, Noodles' locations are primarily focused in the center of the country. It still doesn't have a presence in 24 states. As it builds out, Reddy and his team will have to compete on the more saturated coasts. If the company can do that, Noodles may very well leave a good taste in investors' mouths.
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