BWLD), a restaurant chain that specializes in this sports-bar staple, has jumped to the top of our dwindling list of "buy"-rated companies. Its stock has jumped 64% in the past year. We expect it to outperform rivals Papa John's International ( PZZA), Jack in the Box ( JACK ) and Chipotle Mexican Grill ( CMG ), which are all rated "hold." The company got its start in 1981, when two Buffalo, N.Y., natives moved to Ohio and decided to bring a taste of home to the Midwest. They opened their first restaurant near Ohio State University in Columbus. The company now runs 567 locations in 39 states, including 67 locations that were added last year. The restaurants, which offer customers 14 different wing sauces, attract sports fans who come to drink beer and watch games on big-screen televisions. The company is airing a new TV commercial each week of the NCAA basketball tournament. So far, demand for sports entertainment appears to be trumping recessionary pressures. Buffalo Wild Wings, which is now based in Minneapolis, posted record results in its fourth quarter despite the fact that Americans are spending less. Revenue rose 33%, beating the average 18% gain of companies in the hotels, restaurants and leisure industry. Net income climbed 29%; its per-share earnings have increased year over year in the past eight quarters. Chief Executive Officer Sally Smith said in the company's quarterly statement that 2009 was off to a great start. Same-store sales at company-owned restaurants in January rose 8%, while sales at franchise locations increased 7%.
Despite a difficult economy, Buffalo Wild Wings expanded its operating margin to 9.4% from 8% a year earlier. Its margins are reasonable, though not outstanding, but returns are growing. Fourth-quarter return on assets increased to 15% from 14% and return on equity rose to 14.2% from 13.9%. While its cash position declined 35% to $44.6 million during the quarter, a quick ratio of 1.3 indicates strong liquidity. The company has no debt and doesn't pay dividends, which has boosted its cash reserves and helped fuel its aggressive expansion. Investors already have recognized the financial strength and growth potential of Buffalo Wild Wings, sending its stock up 30% this year. The shares are expensive compared with those of its competitors when you compare its price to its earnings and cash flow. However, they're trading at a discount if you consider its price-to-book and sales ratios. The company's sales and earnings growth rates might justify the high price. About 600,000 of the company's shares trade each day. The company's $581 million market value puts it in the small-cap category. Our quantitative model evaluates more than 5,000 stocks and rates only 7.1% "buy." Buffalo Wild Wings' strong financial position makes it a top performer among that select group.