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Price-conscous consumers are more likely to turn away from the so-called fast-casual and casual-dining segments of the restaurant industry that they may have frequented in the past.
"The burger guys, the pizza guys, the chicken category, the Mexican category -- they're all on fire," said Nick Setyan, a senior vice president for Wedbush Securities."You have positive growth in the restaurant industry, but concentrated in quick-service restaurants."
Instead of spending $8 to $20 for a meal in a nice restaurant, famished customers are seeking out fast-food counters where they will pay $4 to $8.
This week, Wedbush downgraded Shake Shack, Cheesecake Factory and Habit Restaurants to neutral.
Darden Restaurants, whose brands include Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and Bahama Breeze, posted slightly higher sales at its eateries open at least a year in its latest quarter, though they fell short of analysts' estimates. Brinker International, with the Chili's Grill & Bar and Maggiano's Little Italy chains, reported last month that its comparable quarterly sales were off 1.8%. It's making big changes at Chili's, reducing the number of menu items by 40%.
Why Setyan says mid-priced restaurants are under pressure:
CFRA Research is keeping a "buy" on Darden. Moody's also remained positive about the company. The firm's senior credit officer Bill Fahy emphasized the its positive, saying the restaurant operator is doing a good job of managing costs.
Besides wages, lower-income consumers' spending habits and other factors, Fahy said that grocery stores' growing array of ready-made take-out food offerings and quick-service restaurants' embrace of technology, especially for drive-throughs and kiosks, play a role, too.
"Consumers are looking for more value," Fahy said. "Value during the downturn was more focused on price. Value nowadays is also price, but also what you get, how much you get, how it tastes and the environment you're eating it in."
Darden's stock closed Wednesday at $79.15, up $1.44 or 1.85%.