Despite disappointing earnings, Domino's is still winning the pizza wars

Key Points
  • Despite disappointing investors with its earnings, Domino's is still winning the pizza wars.
  • Pizza Hut and Papa John's have been struggling to find solid footing as they lose market share.
  • Blaze Pizza and Mod Pizza, smaller but rapidly expanding players, could soon meaningfully threaten Domino's dominance.
A Domino's Pizza location in Murray, Kentucky.
Luke Sharrett | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Despite Domino's stock posting its worst performance in more than a year after reporting earnings, the chain is winning the pizza wars, even as the field grows more crowded.

Domino's remains the market leader for quick-service pizza, with Pizza Hut in second place, privately held Little Caesars in third and Papa John's in fourth, according to foodservice industry consultants Technomic.

Papa John's, the only chain that has not reported its fourth-quarter earnings yet, is still struggling to bring back customers after a series of public scandals involving its founder John Schnatter. Even with a recent investment from activist hedge fund Starboard Value, a comeback still looks years away, analyst Mark Kalinowski said.

The embattled company's stock, which has a market cap of $1.3 billion, has declined nearly 27 percent over the past year. Stifel's Chris O'Cull downgraded the stock last week, noting that Papa John's promotions suggest that it is struggling to keep up with others' deals.

According to Refinitiv estimates, analysts expect Papa John's to earn 17 cents during its fourth quarter, down 67.8 percent from the same time last year. Wall Street expects same-store sales to decline 7.4 percent. The company will report its results after the bell Tuesday.

Pizza Hut, the laggard of Yum Brands, saw sales at U.S. stores open at least a year grow by 1 percent during its fourth quarter. Yum, which has a market value of $28.5 billion, has been helped by its stronger brands and has seen its stock rise nearly 16 percent over the past year.

"For both the U.S. and international business, sustainable improvements in sales growth will remain a slow build as we update and reposition the asset base and make the messaging more distinctive," Yum Brands CEO Greg Creed told analysts on the conference call.

Kalinowski said he suspects that the chain will continue to lose market share in 2019.

Domino's, meanwhile, is bucking the trend. The market leader is still gaining market share and posting same-store sales numbers that outpace the industry.

The company reported U.S. same-store sales growth of 5.6 percent during the fourth quarter, missing the 6.9 percent growth expected by analysts. It said that its expansion strategy and a calendar change that pushed New Year's Eve sales to the current quarter hurt its same-store sales in the prior period.

Despite falling short of estimates for its domestic same-store sales, analysts remain upbeat.

"While disappointed with the results, we note that Domino's has experienced similar slowdowns in the past (a year ago, as noted) and has managed to reaccelerate comps through various means (new technology, menu items, clever advertising) and this quarter doesn't change that view," BTIG analyst Peter Saleh wrote in a research note.

Domino's shares, still bruised from the recent selloff, are up nearly 12 percent over the past year. The stock has a market value of $10.5 billion.

While Pizza Hut and Papa John's are still searching for solid footing, smaller players could soon take a bigger bite of Domino's sales. Although still much smaller than Domino's, fast-casual chains like Blaze Pizza and Mod Pizza are rapidly expanding and could soon prove to be meaningful threats.

Blaze, which has more than 300 locations and backing from Lebron James, is more directly challenging Domino's. The chain, which serves up made-to-order personal pizzas, is testing delivery of larger 14-inch pies with plans to roll out delivery nationwide later this year.

Unlike Domino's or Papa John's, Blaze is using a third-party service, Postmates, rather than its own drivers to make it happen. Co-founder Elise Wetzel, who also founded Wetzel's Pretzels with husband Rick, said that the rise of third-party delivery made the move possible.

In a few years, Blaze could also be competing with the big pizza companies on the stock market as the company considers an IPO.