Who cares about the comps when multiples like this are flying around? Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen pulled in 10.4 times 2016 EBITDA (also known as gross earnings), Popeyes got 19.6 times (a 27 percent premium to trading levels) and Panera got 19.4 times 2016 EBITDA, a 20 percent premium to its stock price.
Call it a franchise buying bonanza driven by low interest rates and cheap debt.
So what does this mean for the various owners salivating at these payouts? At this point, not much. “I think it’s going to be selective. These are special situations,” said Roger Lipton, a veteran restaurant investor who founded Lipton Financial Services.
If anything, these high multiples should have companies thinking hard about becoming a stronger target instead of those sexy multiples.
Public companies looking for a sale like Ignite or Ruby Tuesday won’t be getting 10.4 times, for example. Brands on the distressed end of the spectrum likely won’t get the 9.8 times EBITDA multiple average seen over the last seven years among public companies.
“I think we’re only halfway through the contraction cycle,” said Piper Jaffray senior analyst Nicole Miller Regan. “These strategic buyers are opportunistic, but the distressed public companies will still be consolidated. But we think that will still be along the lines of financial sponsors rather than strategic partners.”
Without clarity or obvious targets, she suggests investing in brands like Wingstop, Bravo Brio, Ignite, Ruby Tuesday, Noodles and Zoe’s Kitchen as a diversified basket ahead of that late-cycle consolidation, whenever it comes.
In all, this flurry of activity is the same old restaurant industry—lots of easy money for the hopeful growth brands while the middling performers hang on by their fingernails.