Wall Street Keeps Putting Shake Shack Through the Meat Grinder

 | Nov 08, 2016 | 9:00 AM EST
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Welcome to Shake Shack (SHAK) land, where the Wall Street gatekeepers consistently downplay one hell of a growth story.

In all honesty, Shake Shack has done almost everything right since its sizzling IPO back in January 2015. It has given reasonable sales and earnings guidance to Wall Street, and then three months later often beats it handily. The company opted to lift wages for employees because, well, it was the right thing to do and better-paid workers are more productive workers -- see Walmart's (WMT) comeback story this year that coincided with wage hikes of its own. Still, the higher hourly wages haven't crushed Shake Shack's bottom line. It is delivering ahead of its store-opening plan. In other words, the company is securing great real estate faster than it thought and is getting into the groove on how to open restaurants faster. All that's a positive seeing as how Shake Shack has a long-term goal of more than 500 worldwide locations.

Meanwhile, unlike Chipotle (CMG) , Shake Shack has been full steam ahead at opening locations in key overseas markets. The stores in areas such as Tokyo have been mobbed literally since day one. Shake Shack's brand has been validated abroad, which is definitely not the case for many in the fast-food game. And to cap it off, CEO Randy Garutti is clearly borderline obsessed with Shake Shack and achieving greatness for the brand. Garutti's active Instagram feed certainly paints that picture, and it's nice to see a CEO engaged because they truly love their job. Indeed, most CEOs aren't like that -- not sure the last time Caterpillar's (CAT) outgoing, well-paid CEO Doug Oberhelman hopped into a dump truck and lifted some dirt for a show of good faith.

Despite all the obvious positives on Shake Shack, the stock is having yet another challenging year as Wall Street remains fixated on two things. First, there's the ongoing wave of insider selling that is common after a red-hot IPO such as Shake Shack's. Second, there's the company's valuation and fear it will never grow into it due to tough upcoming sales comparisons and the need to invest aggressively for future growth. It's almost as if investors are waiting for Garutti to pull a Kevin Plank at Under Armour (UA) -- warn the Street of big-time investments to meet future goals, which will come at the expense of profit. So far, Garutti hasn't done that or remotely hinted that it's looming. Yet, Shake Shack's stock is down about 19% year to date. Most disappointing is that the stock has given back the gains it made in response to very impressive second-quarter earnings in August. (Under Armour is part of TheStreet's Growth Seeker portfolio.) 

I have no answers on why Wall Street continues to mostly shower Shake Shack with hate. Yes, the stock is pricey, but look at what you are getting involved with here -- America's true next great burger joint. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers (RRGB) , Shake Shack is not (an impostor that sells absurd $13 burgers that aren't worth the money). Yes, insiders are cashing in on their gains, but not due to a lack of enthusiasm for the long-term outlook of the company.

So in the latest attempt to justify staying a believer in Shake Shack, I have come up with several catalysts that may surface when the company reports third-quarter earnings on Wednesday. Remember, the market's response to the second-quarter results suggests it wants to get jacked up again on Shake Shack, but will need a steady dose of positive catalysts to stick it out.

Third-quarter earnings: Tough sales comparison for Shake Shack, but if it could deliver a same-store sales gain of 2% or greater (consensus is a little under 2%) amid good weather across the country, Wall Street may be impressed. That is especially so when considering the restaurant recession that has gripped the U.S. of late due to lower food-at-home prices.

Preliminary 2017 outlook: Last year at this time, Shake Shack offered its sales and store-opening plan outlook for the year ahead. Shake Shack could likely do the same this time, and possibly signal around 20 new U.S. openings (18 projected for 2016) next year and close to 10 overseas (seven or so projected for 2016). Signaling a quicker pace of openings would go a long way to silencing the bears, who believe Shake Shack is unlikely ever to reach its 500-location target. "We believe the company is one of the best long-term growth opportunities in the publicly traded restaurant space, with the opportunity to increase revenues more than sixfold and EBITDA more than eightfold, with a valuation (21 times our 2017 EBITDA estimate) that offers the opportunity for double-digit annual returns," wrote William Blair analyst Amy Noblin in a recent note.

Mobile ordering: Shake Shack launched its first mobile ordering app recently at its Midtown East location in New York. Expect to hear more details on this on the earnings call (though not a ton of detail). If I know Shake Shack (I've covered the company hardcore since its IPO), it will spend the rest of 2016 testing the app to make sure it doesn't cause issues in the restaurant and is enhancing the guest experience. Then, it will likely roll out the app to more locations -- if not all in the U.S. -- sometime by the middle of 2017. And in doing so, that will unlock a good amount of sales that Wall Street unlikely has factored into their models. Mobile ordering is a big deal for fast food -- it has meaningfully lifted sales at Papa John's (PZZA) and Domino's Pizza (DPZ) . Panera Bread (PNRA) is starting to bank money from mobile, too. There is no reason to think Shake Shack won't get its fair share of the mobile ordering pie. As Noblin pointed out, "We are also excited about the company's announced test of a mobile order and pay app at one location in New York, which we believe has the ability to unlock improved customer frequency and through-put." (Panera Bread is part of TheStreet's Action Alerts PLUS portfolio.)

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