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 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 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 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.