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Restaurants Still Strong, Unbowed After Recession

Stocks in this article: BKW DENN CBRL RT AFCE CMG

Shares of DENN recently broke through the $5 level for the first time since 2007. That might draw the name some more institutional interest, if it can hold above $5.

DENN Chart DENN data by YCharts

Cracker Barrel (CBRL), embroiled in an activist fight with Biglari Holdings (BH) has also been on fire. The company is now trading at an all-time high, after reporting a better than expected fourth quarter last week.

CBRL Chart CBRL data by YCharts

Ruby Tuesday (RT) has also had its share of challenges, and this real-estate rich name nearly imploded in 2009. I've been impressed with the newer menu, but that should never be the sole reason to take a position in a restaurant name, given the highly competitive nature of the business, particularly in the casual dining arena. Part of putting consumers in the seats has to do with advertising; we'll see if Ruby Tuesday is successful with its current campaign.

RT Chart RT data by YCharts

Perhaps surprisingly, the best performing restaurant stock year-to-date (market cap greater than $400 million) has been Popeye's chicken parent AFC Enterprises (AFCE), which is up 70% year to date. Among the worst performers, essentially flat year to date is phenomenon Chipotle (CMG), which was up nearly nine-fold between early 2009 and this past April.

AFCE Chart AFCE data by YCharts

There has been a lot of money made in this sector over the past three or four years, but it appears as though the rules may have changed. Despite the bad economic conditions during most, if not all of that period, consumers have not seemed to give up eating out.

I do admit, however, that the specter of rising commodity costs still concerns me for the sector.

At the time of publication, the author was long DENN, RT and BH.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Jonathan Heller, CFA, is president of KEJ Financial Advisors, his fee-only financial planning company. Jon spent 17 years at Bloomberg Financial Markets in various roles, from 1989 until 2005. He ran Bloomberg's Equity Fundamental Research Department from 1994 until 1998, when he assumed responsibility for Bloomberg's Equity Data Research Department. In 2001, he joined Bloomberg's Publishing group as senior markets editor and writer for Bloomberg Personal Finance Magazine, and an associate editor and contributor for Bloomberg Markets Magazine. In 2005, he joined SEI Investments as director of investment communications within SEI's Investment Management Unit.

Jon is also the founder of the Cheap Stocks Web site, a site dedicated to deep-value investing. He has an undergraduate degree from Grove City College and an MBA from Rider University, where he has also served on the adjunct faculty; he is also a CFA charter holder.

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