Top restaurant picks for 2015: Analysts

Cheap gas helps more than just people's budgets. Restaurant stocks are poised to benefit from the savings spillover as some of this newly reclaimed money is spent paying the dining check, analysts say.

Investors should expect an outsize impact from real income growth for lower-income people and lower gas prices, since this group displays higher propensity to spend money at restaurants compared to other categories, Goldman analysts wrote in a recent report.

A customer holds Starbucks Corp. beverages as she exits one of the company's coffee shop.
Krisztian Bocsi | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Which names should score the most from low gas prices and an improving consumer picture? Firms placed their bets for 2015 in a string of recent research reports.

For two firms, Starbucks was a top choice.

Over the next four years, Piper Jaffray analysts think Starbucks could surge to a $100 billion market cap and see its stock rise to $100.

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"This more than offsets investor concerns, in our view, as it relates to the stock's recent lack of performance, potential core market maturation and persistent commodity headwinds," analysts wrote.

Likewise, Goldman Sachs placed a "buy" rating on the coffee retail giant and added it to its Americas conviction list, citing its attractive valuation and its price-to-earnings growth ratio, which it says is the lowest in the restaurant space. The firm also has a "buy" rating on Chipotle as it thinks the Mexican chain's continued marketing investment suggest the opportunity for it to maintain momentum more than analysts expect.

But as its concerns about Starbucks' near-term same-store sales have grown, Janney downgraded Starbucks on Monday to a "neutral" from a "buy." FactSet data shows that 60 percent of analysts have a hold rating on the chain's stock.

Investors should also push the sell button on Panera Bread and Yum Brands, Goldman analysts said.

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"We have concerns that YUM has consistently missed its long-term growth targets and see lingering risks in China after multiple food safety incidents," they wrote. "We see PNRA facing significant competitive intrusion from more food-forward concepts."

Janney Capital Markets was more positive on the parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell saying its stock's ability to weather recent bad news about China same-store sales well showed "resilience." It named Yum Brands and Papa John's to its top picks for 2015.

Janney analysts expect restaurants to post the strongest U.S. chain same-store sales in December of the whole year—in part due to cheap gas and better weather. Family dining, which has a higher average check than fast food, likely posted the most same-store sales improvement of the biggest segments.

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RBC Capital Markets is also more constructive on Yum, saying it has the most upside potential in its coverage universe. Firm analysts noted that next year could be one in which the recent optimism surrounding improvement in casual dining cools.

Barclays remains most cautious on large cap multi-nationals heading into the new year. Its top picks in the space include Brinker International, Panera Bread and Dunkin' Brands.

Stephens named Chuy's Holdings as its top pick in restaurants following a year in which its stock sank more than 40 percent.