Restaurant Industry, Leading Indicator of US Economy Sours, Bankruptcies Pile up

“Very challenging” sales trends.

On Friday, September 30, Restaurants Acquisitions, the operator of Black-eyed Pea and Dixie House restaurant chains, converted its Chapter 11 filing to Chapter 7 liquidation. The bankruptcy court order noted the company had shuttered its restaurants and management had resigned.

The day before, Cosi Inc., a fast-casual chain with 1,100 employees filed for bankruptcy. It closed 29 of its 74 company-owned restaurants and laid off 450 people. The 31 independently owned franchise operations continue operating.

Also last week, Logan’s Roadhouse, a casual steakhouse with over 200 locations, closed more than 10 restaurants, on top of the locations it had already closed in August when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Eight restaurant companies representing 12 chains have filed for bankruptcy since December: Restaurants Acquisitions, Cosi, Logan’s Roadhouse, Fox & Hound, Champps, Bailey’s, Old Country Buffet, HomeTown Buffet, Ryan’s, Johnny Carino’s, Quaker Steak & Lube, and Zio’s Italian Kitchen.

Restaurants are precarious creatures. They lease costly space and have to invest in equipment and furnishings. It’s a competitive environment, with high expenses and little pricing power. To expand, they load up on debts. Some, like Cosi, always lose money. Customers are finicky and fickle. When new competitors come along, or when the economy tightens, customers thin out and creditors begin to fret and turn off the money spigot.

Some of that is normal. The restaurants come along, and old ones die.

“But the current wave of bankruptcies is definitely unusual, and rivals the chain bankruptcy wave of 2009 and 2010, when several chains filed for debt protection after sales fell,” writes Jonathan Maze at Nation’s Restaurant News, adding:

In this case, the wave of bankruptcies is largely due to a decline in sales at restaurant chains that is particularly harmful to companies that are already walking a balance-sheet tightrope. The companies that filed for bankruptcy recently were already weak.

Some are repeat offenders, including Buffets LLC (Old Country Buffet, HomeTown Buffet, and Ryan’s) which is now mired in its third bankruptcy. Many of them, battered by declining sales and rising expenses, have been losing money for a long time. But now things are coming to a head.

Restaurant bonds moved into fourth place early this year in Standard & Poor’s Distress Ratio, behind brick-and-mortar retailers and the doom-and-gloom categories of “Energy” and “Metals, Mining, and Steel.”

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Wolf Richter

In his cynical, tongue-in-cheek manner, he muses on WOLF STREET about economic, business, and financial issues, Wall Street shenanigans, complex entanglements, and other things, debacles, and opportunities that catch his eye in the US, Europe, Japan, and occasionally China. WOLF STREET is the successor to his first platform… TP-Title-7-small-200px …whose ghastly name he finally abandoned in July 2014. Here’s the story on that. Wolf lives in San Francisco. He has over twenty years of C-level operations experience, including turnarounds and a VC-funded startup. He earned his BA and MBA in Texas and his MA in Oklahoma, worked in both states for years, including a decade as General Manager and COO of a large Ford dealership and its subsidiaries. But one day, he quit and went to France for seven weeks to open himself up to new possibilities, which degenerated into a life-altering three-year journey across 100 countries on all continents, much of it overland. And it almost swallowed him up.