Consumers have held up remarkably well this year despite higher payroll taxes, but after investors feasted on restaurant stocks this year, analysts are advocating cutting back.
Retail sales rose 0.4 percent in June, according to the Commerce department, driven by a 1.8 percent rise in auto sales. But while consumers continued to shop for cars and clothes last month, they were spending less money dining out.
With the restaurant stocks having run up sharply, sluggish sales make the group a difficult one to invest in from here.
"Restaurants have been a very strong sector year-to-date, with the top half of stocks under our coverage outperforming the S&P on total return by 11 percent to 40 percent," JPMorgan analysts wrote in a note.
They point out that much of the price performance has been driven by multiple expansion and not an increase in earnings forecasts, which means investors should become more selective as sales soften.
Casual dining chains in particular look vulnerable to softening sales after their run-up. JPMorgan downgraded Brinker, Texas Roadhouse and Bloomin' Brands, saying the group now looks fairly valued with modest same-store sales declines likely.
Baird, meanwhile, cut Buffalo Wild Wings to neutral from buy, after the stock surged 36 percent year to date.
"The increasingly positive sentiment on Buffalo Wild Wings likely has been fueled by expectations for strong earnings growth to emerge in the second half of 2013/2014 behind solid top-line momentum and margin leverage [amid lower year-over-year wing costs]," the Baird analysts wrote, but added that the positives are being factored into the shares at current levels.
While JPMorgan analysts are more cautious on the casual dining chains, they continue to maintain overweight recommendations on McDonald's, Yum Brands and Starbucks. Starbucks was the top pick of the three; the analysts are now indifferent but wrote the stocks "should ideally be bought lower."
(Read more: Starbucks CEO: We're in early stages of growth)
Janney Capital Markets analyst Mark Kalinowski, however, is more worried about McDonald's following results of its franchisee survey that suggested same-store sales in the U.S. will rise only 1.1 percent in June—about half the increase Street analysts are forecasting.
Franchisees noted increased competition and both a softening economy and consumer as challenges.
That led Kalinowski to downgrade the fast-food giant to neutral this week. He noted that sequentially accelerating same-store sales had been a key part of its previous buy recommendation.
"Although this may yet happen as 2013 progresses, it may not happen to the degree the Street in general presently expects," he wrote in a research note.
The analyst added that "should domestic sales merely match—or even underperform—Street expectations, then we believe it will be challenging for the stock to meaningfully outperform its restaurant peers and the S&P 500."
Sales aren't softening everywhere, however. Chipotle Mexican Grill's second-quarter same-store sales accelerated as it attracted more diners. The upscale burrito chain also now expects to put up low- to mid-single-digit percentage growth versus its previous call for flat to low-single-digit percentage growth.
JPMorgan makes a market in Bloomin' Brands Starbucks and Texas Roadhouse. McDonald's, Starbucks, Yum Brands, Brinker, Texas Roadhouse and Bloomin' Brands are also investment banking clients. Baird makes a market in Buffalo Wild Wings and expects or intends to receive investment banking business from the company. Janney makes a market McDonald's and expects or intends to receive investment banking compensation from the company.