Friday, May 25, 2018
Business

Shrinking sales pushing Bonefish Grill chain to close 14 restaurants, restructure

Bonefish Grill will close 14 restaurants this year as the seafood chain restructures following several quarters of disappointing sales results.

Tampa-based Bloomin' Brands, the parent company of Bonefish Grill, Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill and Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, announced Wednesday that it expects the 14 Bonefish Grill locations to close within the year. Bloomin' took a pre-tax charge of $24.2 million during the fourth quarter of 2015 in connection with the closures. No specific stores were named, though company spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said that none of the brand's 15 restaurants in the greater Tampa Bay area will close.

"We needed to strip out the complexity that had impacted the core service at Bonefish and focus on what wasn't broken," said Bloomin' Brands CEO, Liz Smith, during an earnings call Wednesday. "We've done that. It's important to look beyond quarter to quarter. We expect 2016 to be a strengthening and momentum story for Bonefish Grill as we move through the year."

Sales were down at Bonefish Grill by 5.4 percent for the months of October through December as compared to same period in 2014. Sales for the quarter were down a combined 2.8 percent at all Bloomin' restaurant brands in the U.S.

Bonefish Grill, which was intended to be the leading brand for new growth in Bloomin' Brands' restaurant portfolio last year, saw the steepest declines. This is the third quarter of decline for the chain, which is in a competitive class of "polished casual" chain restaurants, and tends to be more pricey than dining experiences like a TGI Fridays or Olive Garden. The menu quality is similar to restaurants like Seasons 52 or Carmel Cafe.

But Bonefish's biggest competitors are independent restaurants, said Malcolm Knapp, a restaurant economist in New York City and the founder of Knapp-Track, an industry tool used to track restaurant sales.

"Bonefish is in a good spot where they can appeal to a higher demographic because the food quality is good," Knapp said. "But independent restaurants are getting bigger and there are a lot of really great chef-driven places out there. With the shrinking size of the middle class, restaurants are seeing less frequency from consumers, who have a lot more choices."

An "anti-chain" movement from a younger demographic has changed the way consumers are spending their money and hurt chain restaurants like Bonefish. Millennials and generation X-ers are looking for value but often opt to try a locally owned restaurant rather than a chain.

"This is a symptom of a bigger issue," said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food research firm. "Fast food and fast casual concepts continue to do well but casual dining is staying stagnant. It doesn't help that Bonefish is a seafood restaurant, which has its ups and downs and isn't as broadly appealing as steaks or Italian."

Nevertheless, Knapp believes Bloomin' is taking the right steps to get Bonefish Grill back on track this year. The company named Gregg Scarlett as Bonefish's CEO in March 2015. Founding Seasons 52 chef, Clifford Pleau was hired away to Bonefish in Sept. 2014. Since then, the restaurant chain has simplified its menu and instituted an updated look inside newer restaurants.

"They are clearly in the middle of a turnaround," Knapp said. "Bonefish is not young. The market has moved on from them. But it's not unusual for large chains to do some pruning like this periodically."

Bonefish Grill opened two new restaurants in the U.S. from September to December 2015, bringing the total count to 210. The company opened more than a dozen Bonefish locations from 2014 to 2015. However, Smith said in August that development for Bonefish would stall until sales improved.

Carrabba's Italian Grill also had a shake up in leadership. Bloomin' Brands announced that Mike Kappitt was named president the day before Bloomin' released its fourth quarter results. Kappitt will be responsible for leading operations and development of the Carrabba's brand in the U.S. He most recently served as the senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Bloomin' Brands. The former president, David Pace, left the company to become CEO at Jamba Juice last month.

Bloomin' Brands fourth-quarter revenue was $1.04 billion, down 5.3 percent from the fourth quarter of 2014. The company's net income for the fourth quarter was $17.7 million, down from $22.4 million the year before. Earnings per share were 14 cents for the quarter, down from 17 cents in 2014. Sales were down for the quarter at brands across the U.S. Sales in international markets were up — Outback Steakhouse sales in Brazil saw a 7.3 percent increase. The company operates 75 Outback Steakhouse restaurants in Brazil and 75 in South Korea.

Shares in Bloomin' Brands fell nearly 11 percent Wednesday to $15.10 despite strong daily gains by all the major U.S. stock markets. The company's stock price has not been this low since 2012.

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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