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EARNINGS PREVIEW: US Restaurant Companies' Profit Seen Growing

By Joan E. Solsman Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES TAKING THE PULSE: Major U.S. restaurant companies are expected to report higher profits in the latest quarter, indicating they may be handling higher commodity costs well. To deal with the pressure, Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) made various targeted price increases and is expected to continue that practice, while Yum Brands Inc. (YUM) and McDonald's Corp. (MCD) both predicted they could widen price increases after previous boosts in China. Meanwhile, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (CMG) wants to hold off on raising prices even if the higher costs eat up margin, and Brinker International Inc. (EAT) is more focused on turning around sales and traffic at its banner Chili's brand after reining in promotions. Those last two companies represent this pack's forerunner and laggard. In the previous quarter, Chipotle had the hottest same-restaurant sales growth of those listed here--13%--while Brinker was the only one to report a decline. Starbucks, Yum and McDonald's all reported solid comparable sales increases in the U.S. last quarter, but the three also face the most profit exposure to Japan, where the March earthquake and tsunami has led them to close some locations and has disrupted food supplies. COMPANIES TO WATCH: Yum Brands Inc. (YUM) - reports April 20 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expect earnings of 64 cents a share on revenue of $2.39 billion. For the same period a year earlier, profit was 59 cents a share excluding refranchising losses and charges--the bottom line was 50 cents a share unadjusted--on $2.35 billion in revenue. Key Issues: The owner of the KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell chains has continued its shift into an internationally driven company. While Yum faces tough comparisons to a powerful showing last year--anchored by its Chinese strength--as well as the rising commodity-cost pressure, its chief has said Yum's unit development last year gives it a head start on reaching profit growth targets in 2011. Yum's approach to price increases includes small, relatively frequent boosts and a greater marketing focus on new, higher-priced menu options over its value deals. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (CMG) - reports April 20 Wall Street Expectations: Earnings and revenue are predicted to rise to $1.43 a share and $495 million, respectively. A year earlier, profit was $1.19 a share on $409.7 million in revenue. Key Issues: The fast-casual burrito chain also has tough comparisons coming up. Its financial chief has said refraining from price increases will support traffic but pressure margins, although last month Co-Chief Executive Montgomery Moran noted lower rent has helped margin lately. After its fourth-quarter results, a glut of analysts downgraded Chipotle partly because of labor-cost worries. The company laid off hundreds of employees after investigations into their immigration status, workers the company needs to replace and retrain. Chipotle also announced details Tuesday about its new concept, ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, opening in Washington, D.C., this summer, giving shares a boost going into the earnings report. McDonald's Corp. (MCD) - reports April 21 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts predict profit will be $1.14 a share on revenue of $5.99 billion. A year prior, the company reported earnings of $1.03 excluding a 3-cent charge linked to Japan restaurant closings on $5.61 billion in revenue. Key Issues: The burger-and-fries behemoth's positive results recently have stemmed from increasingly diverse offerings--ranging from its value menu to higher-margin products like blended-ice drinks--as well as store makeovers and longer hours. Earlier this month, it launched a new string of ads with mascot Ronald McDonald, pushing kid-focused marketing after recently concentrating on adults with offerings like specialty coffee drinks. It's also promoting a nationwide hiring event next week, when McDonald's and franchisees plan to recruit as many as 50,000 U.S. employees, which would boost its national headcount roughly 8%. Brinker International Inc. (EAT) - reports April 27 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts predict earnings from continuing operations will rise to 44 cents a share despite a revenue decline to $710 million, compared with the prior year's 37 cents and $713.4 million, respectively. Key Issues: Sales at the parent company of Chili's Grill & Bar have continued to weaken as reduced promotions hurt traffic, although profit in the previous quarter more than doubled on stronger margins and lower overhead costs. Over the last couple years, Chili's has been revamping its labor strategy to increase efficiency, which could unlock powerful margin benefits if sales turn around. Although Chief Executive Doug Brooks said last month said he sees "no reason" why Brinker can't become the "Yum of casual dining" through overseas expansion, he acknowledged the company needs to be better before it can be bigger. Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) - reports April 27 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts predict earnings of 34 cents a share on revenue of $2.73 billion. A year earlier, profit was 29 cents excluding a penny per share in restructuring charges and revenue was $2.53 billion. Key Issues: The company's previous quarterly profit improved on surprising revenue growth, but Starbucks' projections for the latest period disappointed analysts, reflecting the growing pressure from high coffee prices. For its next stage of growth, Starbucks is turning to Chinese and other emerging market expansion and further extension into single-serve and instant coffee. During the most recent period, Starbucks struck deals with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. (GMCR) and Courtesy Products to provide packs of Starbucks- and Tazo-branded coffee and tea for Keurig single-cup brewers and in hotel rooms and other consumer outlets, and the company also succeeded in breaking from Kraft Foods Inc. (KFT) to begin distributing its branded packaged coffee. (The Thomson Reuters estimates and year-earlier figures may not be comparable due to one-time items and other adjustments.) -By Joan E. Solsman, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2291; joan.solsman@dowjones.com

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