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Rising Costs and Inflation Push America's Budget Dining into Crisis

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Leo Gonzalez

May 11, 2024 - 19:34 pm

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America's Low-Cost Restaurants in Crisis Amid Rising Housing and Inflationary Pressures

In an environment where soaring housing expenses and stubborn inflation are the norm, the consumer's purchasing power is taking a significant hit. With wallets tightening across the nation, the consequences are now being felt deeply within the food industry, particularly amongst America's low-cost dining establishments.

Red Lobster Contemplates Bankruptcy Amid Economic Challenges

Popular chains such as Red Lobster are staring down the grim prospect of bankruptcy. The pressures are mounting with wage costs on the rise, and an increasing number of patrons are choosing to dine at home to save money. These fast-casual eateries generally attract customers from lower-income demographics, a group that's been hit hardest by the escalating cost of living, according to Moody’s analysts.

As these consumers tighten their belts, restaurants reliant on this segment "are feeling it the most," noted Dennis Cantalupo, CEO of Pulse Ratings, a credit-rating and consulting firm. He further emphasized the plight of restaurant operators, who must grapple with a potential prolonged downturn given that the most financially sensitive diners are often the last ones to dine out once they've made a habit of eating at home.

The Economic Balancing Act Affecting Restaurant Survival

The survival of these struggling restaurants hinges on the ability of monetary policymakers to deftly balance interest rate hikes – with the aim of curbing inflation – against the risk of stifling economic growth. Should they falter, job losses could pile up, hitting the same consumers who are already struggling with high living costs. A survey has highlighted a hard truth, revealing that about 40% of restaurants failed to turn a profit last year. Moreover, a spike in certain commodity costs has pushed some smaller and regional food establishments into bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy Filings on the Rise in the Restaurant Sector

This daunting landscape has already claimed casualties. Notably, New York's Sticky’s Finger Joint filed for bankruptcy in April, crumbling under the pressure of "unprecedented" spikes in chicken and potato prices. Elsewhere, Tijuana Flats, a casual Mexican chain predominantly based in Florida, found refuge in bankruptcy as well. Rubio’s Coastal Grill, with its 150 locations across Arizona, California, and Nevada, is presently consulting with real estate advisers to renegotiate leases in a bid to stay afloat.

Sticky's Finger Joint

In contrast, food prices have been more stable at supermarkets, enticing families to stretch their budgets by purchasing staples and forgoing prepared foods. "You get more bang for your buck there," Cantalupo asserts alongside Michael Zuccaro, Vice President at Moody’s. This trend spells trouble for establishments like TGI Friday’s, which faces weakening sales and is currently weighing its debt options.

A Divide in Consumer Spending Power

While less affluent consumers are hoping for price stabilization, those with higher incomes retain greater flexibility. Despite improving economic indicators for the wealthier segments, many still opt for less expensive dining choices, offering a glimmer of hope to those restaurants. Unfortunately, this is not enough to counterbalance the loss from regular customers cutting back on their dining habits.

"Across the board, you have higher labor and food input costs and hesitant consumers," says Mark Levin, co-founder of Asterisk Capital, an advisory firm. He points out a trend where people move from mid-priced eateries to cheaper ones, but a significant slice of the customer base from lower-cost dining places simply choose to stay at home instead.

Insight into the Broader Financial Climate

The financial landscape last week paints a complex picture beyond the restaurant industry. Globally, businesses — some previously shut out of new market issuances — are leaping at the chance to issue debt, capitalizing on strong investor demand and uncertainty around funding costs. In a surprising parallel, a regional US lender with a sizeable $25 billion risk in commercial real estate managed to match Goldman Sachs Group Inc.'s financing costs by tapping into an underutilized market for bank capital.

Pension plans and insurers, for instance, are vigorously investing in equity portions of collateralized loan obligations, aiding hedge funds and other money managers to accumulate at least $3.1 billion in less than a year for these specific strategies.

Furthermore, Guggenheim Partners is consulting with various lenders, including private credit firms, to look into financing options for a potentially colossal $6.6 billion buyout of Macy’s Inc. by Arkhouse Management Co. and Brigade Capital Management.

On the lower end of the risk spectrum, Citrix Systems Inc., through its parent entity Cloud Software Group Inc., approached investors for the third time in a half year to address pricier obligations, part of a trend where riskier borrowers harness favorable credit conditions to raise funds.

To manage its debts, Apollo Global Management Inc. is evaluating the debt profile of Brightspeed, a leveraged buyout that two years ago left banks burdened with billions in company debt.

As for international shifts in the bond market, Country Garden Holdings Co. from China admitted its struggle to meet initial repayment deadlines for interest on two local bonds, resorting to a state guarantor — a debut test for a significant government program aimed at supporting builder debts.

Elsewhere, a Hong Kong court delivered a ruling in favor of creditors concerning a contentious credit protection mechanism widely used among Chinese borrowers, reviving hope among investors seeking to recover funds from defaulted bonds.

Regarding bank activity, approaches are being made to investors for financing Roark Capital Group's acquisition of Subway through a bond deal that could rank among the largest of its kind. And UBS Group AG is investigating investor interest in an $800 million leveraged loan, this time to refinance debt for Royal Oak Enterprises, a charcoal manufacturer.

Also tapping into the debt market, Europe's leading supermarket retailer, the Schwarz Group, is aiming to secure approximately $1.8 billion through a privately-placed bond sale.

Moreover, facing the need for urgent refinancing, Latvia’s Air Baltic Corp had to present the highest bond coupon in Europe this year to secure a deal, a move made possible with the Latvian government's participation.

An uptick in sales of Asia’s high-yield dollar bonds has also been noted, the first annual increase in five years, driven by Indian financial companies eagerly reaching out to international investors.

Professional Shuffles Reflecting Industry Unease

Significant personnel changes in the finance world echo the industry's state of flux. Brad Aston, a Barclays Plc leveraged-finance veteran since 2006, has left the firm. In the Insurance sector, Blackstone Inc. appointed Philip Sherrill, previously Global Atlantic's top strategy executive, to lead its growing segment. In tandem, Blackstone has secured Tom Blouin, Barclays Plc's global co-head of leveraged finance, as a senior managing director.

Furthermore, institutional movements have been witnessed with Pedro Sturm departing XP Inc.'s institutional fixed-income sales desk and Rafael Gouvea, a fellow trader, also exiting the enterprise.

These changes underscore the dynamism and uncertainty inherent in the current economic and financial climate, mirroring the tumult seen within low-cost dining establishments struggling to stay afloat amid challenging economic tides.

In conclusion, the financial health of America's low-cost restaurants is under relentless stress from ever-increasing costs of living and consumer hesitancy. While some venues cling to survival strategies, the broader market braces for further shake-ups, influencing everything from high-profile corporate finance deals to staffing changes at leading financial institutions. The coming months will be critical as these businesses navigate the choppy waters of economic uncertainty in search of safer harbors.

As we witness a precarious balance between managing skyrocketing costs and fostering economic progress, the plight of these popular establishments serves as a bellwether for the endurance of the American consumer and the ingenuity of its business sector.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.