Darden Slides on Forecast

ORLANDO ( TheStreet) -- Darden Restaurants ( DRI) shares tumbled in premarket trading Tuesday after the Red Lobster operator offered weak fiscal 2011 guidance.

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Darden Restaurants posted better-than-expected quarterly profits after the closing bell Monday, but downwardly revised its guidance for full-year same-store sales growth. Comparable same-store sales growth refers to sales at stores open at least one year and is a closely watched metric in the restaurant industry.

"The opportunity for sales upside and opportunity for other cost cuts to offset possible higher commodities in the second half of fiscal 2011 and in fiscal 2012 will be key to the stock's performance in 2011," noted JPMorgan Chase analysts.

JPMorgan had an overweight rating on the stock and $56 price target.

Darden said it now expects comps to grow 2% this year, compared with its prior forecast for growth between 2% and 3%.

Disappointed investors bid Darden shares 3.3% lower ahead of the opening bell Tuesday.

For the fiscal second quarter ended Nov. 28, Darden booked profits of $74.5 million, or 54 cents per share, up 23.5% from year-earlier earnings of $60.3 million, or 43 cents per share.

Revenue grew 5.5% to $1.73 billion, from $1.64 billion in the fiscal second quarter last year.

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Overall comps increased 1.4%, including growth of 2% at Olive Garden restaurants and 6.8% at Longhorn Steakhouse, offsetting a 1.6% decline at Red Lobster.

Darden maintained a 32-cent dividend to be paid next on Feb. 1 to shareholders of record on Jan. 10.

Darden also reaffirmed its guidance for fiscal 2011 EPS growth of 14% to 17%, or in a range of $3.26 to $3.35 per share. Analysts' consensus call was at the high end of that range, expecting full-year EPS of $3.35.

"The overall quarter was mixed as generally in-line sales were offset by better store margins," JPMorgan analysts noted, pointing out that performance at "Red Lobster continues to drag on the overall comp."

The analysts added that "we continue to believe the company, along with Texas Roadhouse ( TXRH), has the unique ability to still cut costs vs. peers to offset commodity pressures."

-- Written by Miriam Marcus Reimer in New York.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Miriam Reimer.

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