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Jim Cramer: In Restaurants, Pure Growth Is Best

NEW YORK (Real Money) -- Which is better? Is it shrinking in order to grow, or just pure growth? Right now that's being put to the test in the restaurant group -- and as much as I think shrink-to-grow is often the way to go, in this particular milieu it's pretty clear you want growth, not break-up and shrinkage.

The cases in point? Darden (DRI - Get Report) and Chipotle (CMG - Get Report). The former is throwing in the towel on its core concept, Red Lobster, and spinning it off and reducing new-unit growth while suspending acquisitions. Chipotle, on the other hand, is accelerating new-store growth and putting money down on new concepts and joint ventures that could turn out to be acquisitions.

We saw what happened last week when Chipotle announced its latest quarter with smoking plus-9%-growth in comps: The stock shot from $483 to $557. That's a similar pattern to what we saw when the previous quarter was released, after which the stock went from $439 to $510.

During that period Darden went from $51 to $49. That, coincidentally, is the same distance the stock has traveled since the company announced its shrink to grow plan -- something that seems to have been prompted by two different activists seeking to bring out value.

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Of course, if you want a longer-term history, in the last four years Chipotle has gone from $99 to $551 while Darden has advanced $38 to $49, although the latter has given you more than $6 in dividends during that period. Still, if you look at that run Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD) has taken from $43 to $141, DineEquity (DIN) from $27 to $77, Starbucks (SBUX) from $22 to $71, Panera (PNRA) from $60 to $169, and Brinker (EAT) from $14 to $48. All of those other players have been committed to growth, and the growth has worked.

But I care more about Chipotle vs. Darden, because Chipotle is a company that invents new concepts. First it was Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen and now, with an investment in a local pizza chain, Pizzeria Local. The latter is a promising idea brought to the company by two graduates of the French Laundry, the legendary French restaurant in California run by Thomas Keller. Meanwhile, of course, Chipotle's putting up more and more stores, announcing an impressive plan for 180 to 195 new restaurants in 2014, to provide it with more locations than ever before.

The comps at Chipotle have accelerated while they have stagnated at Darden. If you break Darden into the three meaningful divisions, you see Longhorn at plus 5% in the most recent quarter while Olive Garden was at minus 0.6% and Red Lobster finished at minus 4.5%. Given those declines, it is hard to believe that anyone will want the Red Lobster spin-off -- and, given the spotty cash flow of the whole operation, it is a wonder that the company has the chutzpah to even attempt to spin off the property. Hence why I think that, in contrast to so many other situations, the shrink-to-grow concept here has been a total bust.

Why is this? I think it is simple: execution. Chipotle has had terrific growth because it has a product that people love -- one that is as natural and organic as a fast casual food restaurant can have. On the other hand I think Darden, for better or for worse, is regarded as a boring, "same old, same old" chain with nothing that's compelling. All it has are recycled advertising campaigns heavily promoted on television that do little to bring people into the stores.

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