Restaurant Development, Construction Costs, and Sustainable Expansion in Casual Dining

The restaurant sector continues to grow aggressively. From new trendy concepts popping up and gaining traction to well-established concepts expanding into other markets in order to capture more market share, restaurants remain bullish on development. Sometimes, however, more isn’t always better. When it comes to scaling any business, from franchisees just getting off the ground to well-established corporate structures, it is important to understand your bandwidth and how to scale under the premise of sustainability versus blind and rapid expansion that can lead to disaster. BJ’s Restaurants, Inc. is a prime example of this philosophy and how sometimes taking what seems like a step back can be a wise move toward a future two steps forward.

BJ’s Restaurants, Inc. is an American restaurant concept that operates under names such as BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, BJ’s Pizza & Grill, and BJ’s Restaurant & Brewery. The first BJ’s concept opened in Orange County, California back in 1978 and in 2017, BJ’s Restaurants, Inc. plans to add 10 locations totaling 197 restaurants operated in 24 states across the nation.

Developing 10 locations in 2017 is light compared to the 17 locations that were developed two years ago. Plans for 2018 are even lighter. According to Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN), CEO Greg Trojan plans to add six more stores next year, stating, “The slower pace of expansion has allowed us to focus operationally on many new initiatives…It’s helped drive more management tenure, adding more local knowledge and team familiarity to our sales-building efforts.”

Recent trends in development has caused construction costs to rise, which has made a number of developers think twice about how to make the numbers work. Net-leased development in general remains the key driver of overall retail construction, accounting for more than 46 million square feet of the 60.4 million square feet delivered over the past year. Single tenant construction has averaged 45 million square feet over the past three years. Developers have been focused on net-lease property development amid labor market strength and extremely low unemployment. According to Marcus & Millichap’s Net-Leased Research Report for Fall of 2017, builders have been constructing projects favoring single tenant concepts, particularly in the quick-service restaurant, pharmacy  and dollar-store segments. Further, net-leased deliveries have accounted for more than 80 percent of retail development since 2009, up from below 70 percent before the recession. According to the Turner Building Cost Index—which measures costs in the non-residential building construction market in the United States— the third quarter 2017 index increased to a value of 1044, which is a 1.26% increase from the second quarter 2017 and a 4.92% annual increase from the third quarter 2016. In fact, costs all around have seemed to tick up a bit as the restaurant sector has been heating up, employment has improved, and supply and demand plays its part in the sector.

construction costsConstruction_Producer_Price_Indexes_Aug2016-1

Although these rising costs have played into some of the slowing development of certain concepts, it also appears that the top level management at BJ’s Restaurants, Inc. simply has a strong understanding of their bandwidth and capacity for growth. By taking a step back and slowing development, they are allowing themselves to settle into their new stores giving those stores an opportunity to mature and build steam. Just like everything else, there is an ebb and flow to growth. It is no wonder that cap rates for real estate assets backed by the publicly traded company have compressed in the recent past. Based on our research data, the average cap rate for BJ’s occupied property in the past 12 months has been 5.27%, while the average BJ’s leased property is on the market at a 5.00% cap rate. Compare that to the average cap rate across full-service restaurants for the past 12 months: 5.79%. The graph below highlights the 2016 average cap rate across a number of the top casual dining concepts in the sector.

Average Cap Rate - Casual Dining

That means BJ’s occupied property has performed over 50 basis points more aggressive than the average full-service nationally recognized brand. That is impressive. Many investors have expressed concern for the full-service casual dining sector as a whole. With many concepts failing to meet sales expectations and consumer preferences changing, some investors worry that the casual dining sector is disappearing altogether; however, as consumer preferences continue to demand customer experience, there is opportunity for the casual dining sector to evolve with consumers and technology in a way that is bound to keep the industry alive. Many champion leaders of the industry are already taking a proactive approach to these consumer changes adopting new technologies, catering to more take out and delivery services, while providing guests with the offerings and experiences they desire in order to get ahead of this evolution and remain relevant. Both QSR and Casual Dining real estate tends to adhere to certain core characteristics; main thoroughfare traffic, hard corners, visibility, ingress/egress, strong parking ratio, etc.

The fact is, from a real estate standpoint, the casual dining sector also provides investors with many benefits over quick service restaurant concepts:

  • Generally Larger Parcel Size for Future Development
  • Larger Building Footprint
  • Higher Guest Ticket Prices Equate to Higher Sales Volume Per Unit
  • Higher Guest Volume and Sales Equate to Higher Rental Figures
  • Larger Price Points to Place, Build, and Leverage Equity

The disappearance of the entire sector would eliminate an entire tier of investments from both a price point and a cash flow stance. Ultimately, there is inherent value in the experience the casual dining sector provides consumers from a social environment to the variety and quality of food it can provide over quick service concepts.

Do I expect the sector to disappear?

No.

Do I expect the sector to evolve?

That is inevitable.

Investors would be wise to identify these front-runner brands, such as BJ’s Restaurants, and opposed to avoiding the sector altogether, invest in concepts that are up and coming in addition to scaling in a sustainable way.

If you are an investor interested in taking advantage of some of the up and coming concepts in the casual dining sector, I am happy to share my insights and help you find a deal that meets your investment criteria. Whether you are looking to invest in the sector, gauge your current holdings, or build a strategy around how to maximize the value of your assets, I welcome the opportunity to learn more about your individual situation and what I can do to help.

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