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Restaurant industry needs a 'Circuit City' event: Pro

A recent spate of restaurant bankruptcy protection filings has sharpened the focus on whether the industry suffers from too much supply.

While there have been restaurants posting strong growth, like Chipotle and Panera Bread, others like Sbarro, or many independent restaurants, have seen "a slow bleed," said Steve West, a restaurant analyst at ITG Investment Research.

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"The economists tell us we've been out of a recession for years ... but the consumer to me has been in a recession since 2006 when gas was $3 per gallon," West said.

In fact, restaurant visits per capita have plunged from their recession peak, falling to 193 visits per capita in the 12 months ended in September 2013 from 208.4 visits during the same period in 2008, according to data from The NPD Group..

(Read more: Pizza chain Sbarro files for bankruptcy protection)

West noted that the U.S. has too many restaurants, particularly in the casual dining segment.

'Circuit City' event needed

"The restaurant industry never had a Circuit City event, where a big major player went bankrupt and closed their stores," said West, who sees a need for something similar in restaurants.

Instead, several chains have filed for bankruptcy protection during the past year. Most recently, it was Sbarro, which said this week that it would close a portion of its stores. The pizza chain's high debt load has been compounded by a bevy of problems: fewer visits to mall-based retailers, weak consumer spending at restaurants and being on the wrong side of consumer trends, which have favored fast, fresh made-to-order food.

(Read more: Chipotle of pancakes? IHOP developing new format)

Sbarro's filing follows those of Hot Dog on a Stick's parent and F&H Acquisition, the owner of Champps and Fox & Hound, and preempts a rumored one from Quiznos, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal citing sources.

Despite the oversupply, West isn't convinced closures will occur. During the recession, he predicted locations would close, but this failed to happen as chains benefited from food deflation and lower labor costs and turnover rates.

In fact, it's been the opposite. In spite of a steady decrease in dining visits, the number of restaurants and bars has risen steadily over the past decade, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

"Net, net the industry has not retrenched as much as it should have to reflect consumer preferences," said Carla Norfleet Taylor, director at Fitch Ratings.

(Read more: 'Guacapalypse' ahead? Chipotle speaks out)

For some, underperforming locations may continue to stay open due to lease commitments or because the restaurant chains can still eke out returns for shareholders.

The average size of restaurant locations also has gotten smaller, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of research firm Technomic.

But restaurant brands that are 30 years old or more and haven't remodeled or revamped their menus in recent years need to watch out, Tristano said. He expects these brands that have lost their relevance with customers will continue to struggle and may look for bankruptcy protection to recognize or reduce their debts.

However, since many of these chains are privately held, it's difficult to gauge whether investors could see a wave of similar bankruptcy protection filings ahead, West said.

"I would say keep an eye out for restaurant brands that have experienced a prolonged period of negative same-stores growth within the full-service space—particularly if they appeal to a low-income demographic," Taylor said.

Correction:
This story has been updated to reflect that Steve West is an analyst at ITG Investment Research.

—By CNBC's Katie Little. Follow her on Twitter @KatieLittle.

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