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Darden Restaurants Puts Priority On Real Estate

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Darden Restaurants, Inc. (NYSE: DRI) shares rose Wednesday after the company beat second-quarter expectations and said its first priority is settling on a real estate strategy.

The company's shares traded recently at $57.55, up 3 percent.

Darden's holdings include more than 1,200 owned or leased restaurants, mostly under its Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse brands, which the company has said might be better managed through a real estate investment trust.

Interim Chief Executive Eugene I. Lee Jr. told analysts Tuesday that the newly constituted board's "initial focus will be exploring options for our real estate portfolio."

Darden's board was reconstituted on October following the ouster of Chief Executive Clarence Otis by activist investor Starboard Value.

Lee said Tuesday that Darden recently hired advisers for its real estate review, including JPMorgan, Moelis & Co., and Skadden & Arps.

Morgan Stanley's John Glass expects Darden's emphasis will shift to cost cutting and conservative capital allocation, and away from acquisitions and restaurant remodeling.

Catalysts down the road for Darden's shares might include a spin-off of the company's faster-growing specialty restaurant group, perhaps in a year, as well as cost cutting and "monetization" of its real estate portfolio by mid 2015, Glass said.

But Glass rates the shares Equal-Weight with a $59 target.

"They have a lot on the table," said Bank of America's Joseph T. Buckley, who maintained an Underperform rating and $47 target Wednesday.

Buckley fears that slow sales growth at Darden's Olive Garden unit could put the company's dividend at risk and make the stock expensive "no matter who controls the board."

Olive Garden sales remain the most important operating statistic for Darden, according to Wunderlich's Robert M. Derrington.

The company's modest second-quarter earnings beat came from same-store sales at Olive Garden that increased 0.5 percent, the first growth for the unit in more than a year.

The increase was driven by Darden's recent emphasis on "to-go" sales, which grew 15 percent, and amounted to 8.6 percent of the unit's sales.

"We're cautious on Darden" given abrupt recent changes and industry competition, said Derrington, whose Hold rating and $54 target was under review Wednesday.

Latest Ratings for DRI

DateFirmActionFromTo
Jan 2017ArgusUpgradesHoldBuy
Dec 2016Deutsche BankDowngradesBuyHold
Dec 2016GuggenheimUpgradesNeutralBuy

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