Applebee’s: Good or Bad Investment?

Applebee’s: Good or Bad Investment?

It was November of 1980 in Decatur, Georgia when the doors opened for T.J. Applebee’s Rx for Edibles and Elixirs. Six years later, the concept changed names to Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar to reflect the original vision for the concept being a local place that everyone could call home. Fast forward 20 years later and Applebee’s had grown large enough to attract the attention of DineEquity, formerly IHOP Corporation, which acquired Applebee’s for $2.1 Billion in 2007 to create the largest full-service restaurant company in the world.

Now we are in 2017 and times are changing! Fast casual concepts have been picking up steam since the early 2000’s. With consumer preferences continuing to shift towards a larger variety of tastes along with a desire for healthier choices, fast casual as a segment has began to take market share from both casual dining and quick service restaurant concepts with the rise of trendy concepts. In light of these changing consumer preferences, Applebee’s made a number of shifts over the past few years in strategy, offering, marketing, etc. in order to maintain that market share and recapture their customers.

Even still, the company has seen regular declines in same-store sales recently and it has hurt the perception of Applebee’s as an investment. The average cap rate for Applebee’s sold in 2016 was 5.90%; year to date 2017, the average cap rate is 6.21%. That means that over the past twelve months, cap rates have climbed over 30 basis points.

That doesn’t sound too bad…

The recent announcement that DineEquity would close up to 135 locations in fiscal 2017 is what has really created the most recent shift in perception and cap rates. The average cap rate for on-market Applebee’s properties right now is 6.73%; over 80 basis points from the 2016 average. Further, the average cap rate for Applebee’s properties hitting the market since August is 7%. That is over 100 basis points lower than where cap rates were for a comparable asset 12 months prior. This is not happening across the board for restaurant net-leased assets. The restaurant sector actually continues to see some of the most compressed cap rates across all other net-leased food groups; staying about 40-50 basis points lower than other comparable net-leased assets in other sectors. This is a direct result of buyer perception and an influx of inventory hitting the market.

So as a buyer, you should stay away, right?

Not necessarily.

Many argue that now is the time to enter the Applebee’s concept and take advantage of these inflated cap rates for a proven concept with a long-term lease in place. Applebee’s has been on a steady decline, however, recently there have been a number of changes within executive management and they are shaking things up. What they did not tell you prior to rolling out the breaking story of all the anticipated location closures was that they had identified most of these closures quite some time ago. In fact, half of the stores they plan to close have likely already shut their doors. According to Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN), the Applebee’s brand president, John Cywinski, said this was a strategic move and many of the store closures are stores that “need to close and perhaps should have closed a long time ago”. In addition, Applebee’s has vowed to get back to their American roots. Instead of continuing the attempt to capture a new demographic, they are going back to listening to what their core demographic is asking for. According to Inc.com, Cywinski made this statement regarding their new focus:

Now, let’s shift attention to our guests and perhaps one of the brand’s strategic missteps. Over the past few years, the brand’s set out to reposition or reinvent Applebee’s as a modern bar and grill in overt pursuit of a more youthful and affluent demographic with a more independent or even sophisticated dining mindset, including a clear pendulum swing towards millennials. In my perspective, this pursuit led to decisions that created confusion among core guests, as Applebee’s intentionally drifted from its — what I’ll call its Middle America roots and its abundant value position. While we certainly hope to extend our reach, we can’t alienate boomers or Gen-Xers in the process. Much of what we are currently unwinding at the moment is related to this offensive repositioning.

Applebee’s is upgrading image, equipment, and focus. They have embraced technology and begun implementing tablets into their POS systems. They have adjusted the menu and pricing strategies under new executive management. To top it all off, they are getting back to the roots of their core demographic and are revved up to crush it out of the park. Good or bad investment? It depends on your threshold for risk and your hunger for return. For every seller looking to transition from Applebee’s to a different asset or net-leased sector, there are three buyers trying to take advantage of the inflated cap rate environment around the concept.

Like any long-term net-leased investment, it is important to weigh all the factors heavily before moving forward. Ultimately, anything can happen over the next 15-20 years. If you are concerned with maintaining your cash flow for the extent of the new 15 year Applebee’s lease you are looking to purchase, then get critical of the guarantee behind the lease and weigh the risk that it holds. If you would rather take a 7% return when all other restaurants are trading 100 to 200 basis points lower, then simply assume they will vacate at the end of the lease and evaluate the core real estate for the future. If the financial strength of the guarantee holds weight and you are positioned on over an acre of land, on a decent thoroughfare, in a growing area, then a dive into an Applebee’s bottom might be your smartest move; worst case scenario you re-tenant after the base term with a growing concept after collecting an average of 7-8% on a passive net-leased asset…the upside, though, is that you could enter into the monster concept on a downswing and get to ride it back up through its transformation.

Hurricanes Irma and Harvey: How Natural Disasters Can Impact the Market

Hurricanes Irma and Harvey: How Natural Disasters Can Impact the Market

I remember a few years ago, taking a phone call in front of our large conference room window. I was looking out at the downtown skyline of Tampa Bay, discussing deal points with a client on other end of the phone. Most of the office had cleared out to prepare for a brewing hurricane. The skies were blue and the sun was beaming, but grocery store parking lots were gridlocked as swarms of people flooded the aisles in search of water and canned goods. There was no indication that the storm would even continue heading our direction, but everyone was up in arms about being prepared for the worst. It turns out the Category 3 storm that was headed straight for us took a last minute detour and we maintained blue skies for the bulk of its passing.

Preparation, or non-preparation, becomes a double edged sword. Nine times out of ten, you will over prepare for a storm that never happens, but that one time you decide to overlook your preparations is when you will be hit the hardest. This year, hurricane season has been in full force. First it was Hurricane Harvey, which slammed coastal Texas with devastating power. Homes and businesses were flooded and cars were swept off the roads. The category 4 storm had 130 mph winds that ripped through the Texas coast overnight. At the end of it all there had been as much as 20 inches of rain in some places leaving over 300,000 people without power.

That type of devastation affects not only the residents, but the surrounding businesses, the infrastructure, and the real estate. Darden Restaurants, Inc., the parent company of a number of well known full-service restaurant brands such as Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, and the newly acquired Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, reported the storm hurt same store sales and earnings in its fiscal first quarter. Between forced store closures, power outages, and other unfortunate circumstances, their earnings per share took a hit. The Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen concept was hit particularly hard because of their strong presence in Texas according to Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN).

Hurricane Irma was expected to have a similar impact on Florida markets. With its last minute shift causing a direct hit on the entire state of Florida, there were many Florida markets that were hit hard as a result. The day after all the devastation, our team was out driving the market to help owners assess damages to their properties. Many of the coastal flood zones flooded some houses and businesses. Most of Tampa Bay, however, was able to weather the storm with minimal damage, although many businesses went without power for over a week in addition to having difficulty acquiring supplies to keep their doors open. Some businesses were raking in the sales and taking advantage of being the only restaurants open among some of the densest counties in Florida. One Taco Bell I visited was slammed with guests, but still struggling to save face in the wake of not being able to get the supplies they needed. A guest asking for a spork was met with a manager’s apologetic eyes:

“We don’t have anymore. I might have to go down the street and see if we can get some plastic forks from Publix”

Most of Central Florida, although arguably hit the worst, weathered the storm fairly well. Aside from debris and a few fallen trees paired with a massive loss of power, most structures stayed intact. Many of the restaurants maintaining power served to feed those residents who were going on 5 days without power in their homes.

Other Florida markets, however, were hit harder than they would have wished. South Florida markets on both coasts and everything in between were met with some tough times; properties flooded, power grids out for weeks, infrastructure ruined. Many markets are still working to recover their physical structures, not to mention swallowing the pill of lost sales during the times of closure. Franchisees have been forced to close doors on a number of stores and some have even abandoned specific locations that they deemed too much of a capital expense to get back up and running.

In terms of net-leased investment sales, these factors impacted the market there too. Some properties that were hit the hardest were actually under contract at the time of devastation. Many of the potential buyers in the midst of 1031 exchanges ended up dropping those contracts. We saw an influx of offers shifting from south Florida markets to West and Central Florida inventory we still had available. Investors were looking more critically at hedges against catastrophe than they had previously. In addition, a number of owners had never considered the potential risk of a natural disaster or at least never considered it a risk significant enough to impact their investment. Some owners have had to spend thousands to tens of thousands of dollars on repairs, while others made it out with little or no damage, but now have considered selling due to the increased perception of risk.

These storms have been eye opening for many people in a variety of ways, including the other side of the coin where there are many investors now looking hard at Florida markets trying to identify the opportunities to scoop up some of these properties that may suddenly have value to be added. At this point, most businesses are back up and running in most major markets, and while many are still recovering, everyone is working hard to move forward. Ultimately, though, it is amazing how resilient the market is. For every owner wanting to exit Florida markets for fear of the next natural disaster, there are three buyers looking to buy in the income tax free state.

The show must go on…but now it may just come with a higher price tag for flood insurance.

Church’s Chicken: A Work in Progress

Church’s Chicken: A Work in Progress

Church’s Chicken is an American chain of fast food restaurants specializing in fried chicken. The chain was founded as Church’s Fried Chicken To Go by George W. Church, Sr., on April 17, 1952, in San Antonio, Texas, across the street from The Alamo. The company, with more than 1,700 locations in 25 countries, is the third-largest chicken restaurant chain behind KFC and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.

Church’s is known for thriving in tough markets housing lower income demographics. Many investors actually prefer these investments because there is a sort of hedge against risk in these markets. The perception is that regardless of what hardships hit these markets, they will always need to eat cheap and Church’s is there to provide that service. In the recent past, however, with the chicken market exploding, Church’s has had some tough competition. Church’s as an organization has made serious strides towards improving their competitive position.

According to the organization itself, burger joints and grocery stores are stealing their thunder lately. It could be argued, however, that their biggest competition is the local shop across the street. Even they agree that the business is a battle of street corners. Essentially, it is all about real estate…Who has the hard corner with the highest traffic counts? Who is most likely to pull customers in from the street and capitalize on their impulse for dinner?

Admittedly, Church’s as an organization is working on both variety of offering and also increasing volume through drive-through efficiency. According to Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN), Church’s has been ramping up their technological offering in an attempt to improve their drive through experience.

Who is the drive through competition though?

Chick Fil A, Raising Cane’s, Zaxby’s…There is some tough competition out there. Church’s has clocked their drive-through time in at just over three minutes and 30 seconds, which is impressive, but you also have to get the order right. According to recent data published by QSR Magazine on the accuracy of QSR fast food joints, some of the top contenders include Raising Cane’s topping the list at over 97% accuracy…Chick Fil A pulling 3rd with over 93% accuracy…and Zaxby’s clocking in at over 90% accuracy. Church’s Chicken unfortunately did not make the top 15 on the list.

With a dinner oriented business, focused on a lower income demographic and catering to the entire family, there is still little competition for the type of value their $5 Real Big Deal brings. It is hard to beat a deal that cheap that can feed the family while also offering choices that allow you to customize your meal.

When it comes to Church’s Chicken as a real estate investment, there are certain characteristics the deal holds that you cannot ignore:

  • Like many QSR properties, the real estate tends to maintain core desirable properties:
    • Hard Corner
    • Main Thoroughfare
    • Good Ingress/Egress
  • The rents are low
    • With rents averaging around $20 PSF as a concept, if the demographics were to shift in a landlord’s favor, there could be some generous upside in rent appreciation.
  • Demographics have a sustainable need
    • The target demographic, although thrifty, has proven to spend money on convenience. The concept works and is typically recession-proof. Even when there is a downturn, the main household income for this demographic will not shift as dramatically as other higher income areas. Because the demographic is self-sustainable, they can often replicate the disposable income necessary to spend money on eating out more readily than other economically hard-hitting areas.

Over the past twelve months, Church’s Chicken has had an average cap rate of 7%. Similar to the story above regarding the sustainable demographic, the cap rate has also remained fairly stagnant compared to other concepts. Why? Mainly because while the risk or perception of risk in other concepts varies greatly around market traction, the perception of risk for these types of assets remains fairly the same over time. The guarantee has not shifted much; and although the demographics will never demand a certain amount of sales, the demand for the concept and product is there. The density of the population and demand from the surrounding population will sustain the concept.

The challenge for an owner is: what happens if they leave?

If you own a Church’s Chicken and the lease term is approaching, a major question is: Will they stay or will they go? As an owner with this question in mind, you hold significant risk. Although compared to other net-leased investments, the average Church’s Chicken pays a fairly low rent per square foot, the sustainability of the cash flow stream can still be unclear. The nature of the target demographic is a pro in the fact that it is in constant need of the product, but a con in the fact that even though the base rent is low, if Church’s left, you would be stuck trying to lease to a local tenant likely at half the market rate. Your cash flow would be cut in half. If you are a savvy investor and have enough tenant relationships to redevelop the parcel or sit on it until it can be redeveloped with a stronger tenant, then you are in good shape.

Most of us, however, are not in that kind of position.

I urge clients to look at their investments critically and evaluate their options on a regular basis. I am here to help. I’m evaluating risk, cash flow, equity, and future value for clients on a daily basis and I’m happy to do the same for you. As you plan your long-term investment strategy, it is imperative that you look at how your existing portfolio fits into your long-term plan. An investment like Church’s Chicken has its pros and its cons; it can certainly be a strong part of a comprehensive portfolio, but my point is that nothing should be left to chance. If you are not looking at these investments with a strict magnifying glass and comparing them to the rest of your long-term plan, then you need to re-evaluate your investment strategy. I am happy to help wherever it makes sense, so please reach out if you are curious about your existing portfolio, looking to diversify, or simply wish to keep a pulse on what is happening in the market and how you can best capitalize on the recent market changes.

Dunkin’ Brands Shaking Things Up

Dunkin’ Brands Shaking Things Up

With the rise and plateau of the Fast Casual sector, consumer preferences changing, millennials consuming all the avocado toast, and all the other craziness of 2017 (See @RealDonaldTrump for Details), many restaurant concepts are making executive level shifts and reconfiguring their business models.

Dunkin Brands is no different. Dunkin’ Donuts opened their first shop in Quincey, Massachusetts in 1950 and since has grown to 12,300 locations worldwide with over 8,500 locations here in the United States. Recently, Dunkin’ Donuts announced they were considering a rebranding initiative to remove the…donuts. Don’t grab the tissues. The donuts are not going anywhere for now, but soon the brand may be known simply as Dunkin’. They are expected to make a final decision sometime next year after rolling out a few test stores, according to CNN Money. If they go through with it, it would mean removing the word “Donuts” from thousands of stores including signage and marketing materials. Dunkin’ Brands, with the pastry market already cornered, is looking to capitalize on the consumer preferences leaning heavy on the beverages.

That is why they are also shaking things up with their doughnut inventory. According to Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN), the Dunkin’ brand is “getting its doughnut mojo back”. Their plan is to reduce the variety of doughnuts offered, while simultaneously introducing more “artisanal” options that have proven success with consumer preferences in the recent past. They plan to land at around 18 different doughnut options including a maple doughnut with bacon bits on top; maybe taking a page out of Voodoo Doughnuts’ recipe book out in Portland, OR.

In addition to shrinking their doughnut variety, Dunkin’ will look to expand their beverage variety experimenting with a number of new beverage options. Their hope is to rebrand and capture more of the beverage heavy consumers from their immediate competitors. All in all, it is a lot of major change happening fast. Some say they are putting the “nuts” in Donuts, but if profits jump and it appears they are making more money by capturing more market share from their competitors, they may be simply replacing one kind of dough for another ($$$).

Restaurant Sector More Bullish Than Others

Restaurant Sector More Bullish Than Others

A brand-new Taco Bell just sold for a 5.5% cap rate in Fleming Island, Florida! If you know where cap rates have been trading across product types in the net-leased sector, this may not appear to be too surprising. Cap rates have compressed in the net-leased sector as far as 120 basis points from where they were at the last market peak, but this go around, the restaurant sector has compressed even further than other net-leased product types. That means that values today are some of the highest we have ever seen, especially in the restaurant sector.

As a frame of reference, 2007 saw one of the hottest historical markets ever; values peaked and buyers were bullish. In that market, brand new 15-year to 20-year Taco Bell leases were trading at 7% cap rates. These long-term Taco Bell deals were typically backed by 50+ unit operators. The Taco Bell in Fleming Island that just sold was a new 20-year lease backed by a 19-unit guarantee and traded for at a 5.5% cap rate. That is a 150-basis point spread from the last market cycle and it’s not an exception.

dunkin representative photo

Just last month, we sold a brand-new Dunkin Donuts with a shorter-term lease and a smaller guarantee at a 5% cap rate. The deal was a brand-new 10-year Dunkin Donuts lease backed by a 13-unit guarantee in St. Petersburg, Florida. Within only a few weeks of bringing it to market at a 5% cap rate, we had sourced multiple offers. The competition created ultimately resulted in a 36-day closing at full list price. Only 12 months ago, 10-year Dunkin Donuts deals were trading at an average cap rate of 6%. For further perspective, in 2006, the average cap rate for a comparable Dunkin Donuts was 7%.

We are seeing restaurant properties trade 25-50 basis points lower on a cap rate basis than most other net-leased sectors right now.

Restaurants are hot!

Even when faced with the potential risk of shifting consumer trends and the sales slumps of the casual dining sector, buyers understand that restaurants serving the general population are not going anywhere. Similar to how multi-tenant shopping centers are attracting more service based tenants to compete with online sales competition, restaurant brands are evolving to cater to these changing consumer trends and when the dust settles, people will still need to eat.

Because of the aggressive restaurant cap rates versus other sectors, owners in the restaurant sector have been weighing their options and crafting a strategy for how to take advantage of these recent trends. For our clients, the biggest concern is where to put the money and ensure a successful exchange. The initial thought is that you are trading into the same market and so the opportunity is perceived to be a wash, however, we have had success in moving our clients from the restaurant sector to other net-leased sectors where cap rates, although compressed, are not as bullish.

Often times, there are opportunities across other sectors such as drug stores and auto-related investments that can not only replace or improve our client’s current cash flow position, but also improve their real estate investment in general; better guarantee, longer lease term, or upgrading their core real estate to larger parcels or hard corners.

Values remain the highest they have ever been, while cap rates remain more compressed than in the last market peak. Both buyers and sellers should remain bullish in the current market as prices in this market are still extremely aggressive compared to the historical 10-year average and the net-leased opportunities on the market offer a long-term passive cash flow stream often with a hedge against inflation via regular rental increases, especially across other sectors.

Whether or not you plan on transacting in 2017, I am always available as a specialized restaurant net-leased expert and resource for market information. It is my mission to ensure you have the tools necessary to proactively plan your long-term investment strategy. For more detailed research specific to your property or market, give me a call directly to discuss how I can help.