Wall Street analysts offer their take on which publicly traded restaurant chains have the brightest outlook in the coming months. 

As the current earnings season winds down, Bank of America Merrill Lynch stock pickers reviewed how the restaurant firms see their own near term sales prospects. Now, obviously, some of this is subjective, the rationale for the different companies' outlook varies and Merrill doesn't follow every publically held chain. So, with those caveats, here are the bears, or as Merrill categorizes them, the cautious companies: Bloomin' Brands, Brinker, Burger King, Cheesecake Factory, Chipotle, Cracker Barrel, Darden, Jack in the Box and Tim Horton's.

The bulls, those listed as more positive, are Domino's, Dunkin' Brands, Panera, Red Robin, Starbucks and Wendy's.

Merrill's analysts also noted that industry sales are slow but said that investors seem to be "looking through current sales softness." Further, food costs are an issue with "a few select companies but are surprisingly benign given crop/weather issues from last summer."

On the negative side, Merrill Lynch, quoting Malcolm Knapp's Knapp-Track, said that the 50-plus casual restaurant chains that Knapp-Track has in its database had comparable store sales decline by 5.4 percent in February 2013 when compared to the same month last year. Check average was up just 0.9 percent while guest counts dropped 6.3 percent. Getting the blame was a perfect storm of tough comparisons (comp store sales were up 3.3 percent in February 2012), mild weather last winter, rising gasoline prices, higher FICA taxes and delayed tax returns.

Economic News This Week:

  • Labor was a hot topic this week. Payroll processor ADP reported that the U.S. added 198,000 new jobs in February, down from 215,000 in January. Most of the new jobs – 164,000 – were in service industries. Small businesses added 77,000 jobs, mid-size businesses added 65,000 jobs and larger ones added 57,000. The government reported that first time jobless claims fell by 7,000 to 340,000 for the week ending March 3. The 4-week average of claims dropped to 348,750 which is the lowest they have been since March of 2008. The official employment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the economy created 246,000 new private sector jobs last month while government employment dropped by 10,000 for a net growth of 236,000. The number of long-term unemployed was unchanged over January as was the percentage of workers against the total population. One economist said all indications are that the jobs picture is improving but at a "painfully slow" rate.
  • The Institute for Supply Management's Non-manufacturing (Service) Index for February rose to 56 from 55.2 in January. This marks the thirty-ninth straight month the Index has been above 50, indicating expansion of service industries. ISM stated that 13 of the 18 industries covered by the survey rose last month. New orders and production both rose while there was a sharp drop in employment. Roughly 80 percent of private sector employees are in service businesses.
  • The revised estimate for fourth quarter productivity fell 1.9 percent, which is a sign of declining economic health. Hourly wages rose just 0.4 percent in the fourth quarter when adjusted for inflation. But, for the full year inflation adjusted hourly wages declined by 0.6 percent.
  • Factory orders fell by 2.0 percent in January but the Commerce Department said that the decline was caused by a steep drop in orders for commercial aircraft. Excluding aircraft, factory orders rose 1.3 percent.
  • Consumer credit increased by 7 percent in January to $16.2 billion. A huge portion of the increase was for non-revolving credit such as car loans. The Federal Reserve said that credit card debt rose only by 0.2 percent. Consumers' willingness to take on debt is considered by to be a sign of confidence.
  • U.S. household's net worth – the value of all the assets owed less debt and liabilities – rose 1.8 percent in the last quarter of the year according to the Federal Reserve. Net worth was boosted by increasing home prices and a run up in stock prices and is now where it was in late 2007.
  • Gallup's U.S. Economic Confidence Index fell for the third week in a row after hitting a five-year high just a month ago. The Index mirrors the reading it had during the "fiscal cliff" crisis and is significantly below its average for the last quarter of 2012.

Foodservice News This Week:

  • Foodservice hiring was up last month with the Bureau of Labor Statistics finding the industry added 18,800 jobs. The BLS says foodservice employs 10,142,000. The National Restaurant Association pointed out that foodservice employment grew 3.4 percent last year, which is double the rate that the economy expanded.
  • McDonald's, going against tough comparison's with February 2012 sales, reported that world wide comparable store sales fell 1.5 percent in February with U.S. comps falling 3.3 percent. The chain said adjusting for the leap day last February in effect meant U.S. comps were flat. Once again McDonalds beat forecasts since consensus estimates were for U.S. same store sales to be down 4 percent to 5 percent. The company's total sales were down 0.9 percent but were up 1.1 percent with currency adjustments.
  • Foodservice is having a "Quiet Recovery" according to the consulting firm of AlixPartners. The firm said that the industry is becoming more adept at providing value and meeting customer needs and wants. In addition, smart restaurants are doing a good job of controlling costs.
  • Social catering is a growth market for fast-casual restaurants based on recent research by Technomic. Inc. Fast-casual restaurants had projected growth of 12 percent followed by quick-serve sandwich restaurants (8 percent) and club stores (7 percent). Technomic said improvements in food quality, particularly from fast-casual and fast food chains, was a significant factor in sales gains with customers.
  • Casual dining restaurants are being whipsawed by consumers according to an article in the Orlando Sentinel. On one hand, customers are going for faster dining, particularly at fast-casual operations, and on the other hand they are trying trendier, upscale fare. The writer quotes the CEO of Darden, Clarence Otis, as saying they are "in a new era" and Brinker CEO Wyman Roberts saying "We know casual dining is not the bright, shining star that it used to be."
  • Growth Chains: Krispy Kreme has signed a franchise agreement that will bring 10 stores to Taiwan. Jamba Juice has a master franchise agreement to develop 80 stores in Mexico in the next 10 years. Carl's Jr. has a plan to open 300 franchised stores in Australia over the next 10 to 15 years. Starbucks hopes to reach 300 stores in Taiwan by a 10 percent annual growth rate. Buffalo Wild Wings has agreements with 3 franchisees in Mexico to open 3 restaurants this year.
  • Comparable store sales reports: Arcos Dorados (up 8.6 percent), Country Style Cooking (down 4.9 percent), Frisch's (down 1.7 percent), Good Times (up 11.7 percent), Jamba, Inc. (system up 0.6 percent, company-owned down 1.2 percent and franchised up 2.3 percent), and McDonald's U.S. (down 3.3 percent).

For details and comparable store sales of chains, click here for the Green Sheet.