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Reinventing Jack

By Alyce Lomax
February 19, 2004

Wind it up, but will it pop? Jack In the Box (NYSE: JBX) continues to iron out its ongoing brand reinvention, starting with some strategic moves it announced yesterday with its fiscal first-quarter numbers.

A 26% drop in net income was largely the result of a refinancing charge, and the company's got some changes planned as it deals with tough industry forces. Ol' Jack has been fighting to differentiate itself in a market where the strong players -- McDonald's (NYSE: MCD), Wendy's (NYSE: WEN), and Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM) -- have all been pretty strong performers.

Back in September, Jack In the Box announced efforts to widen its appeal. Among its plans then were specialty dishes like its Teriyaki Bowl, as well as expansion of its Qdoba Mexican grill concept, while minimizing discounting, which can bring on the ill effects of things like Burger Wars.

In yesterday's conference call (transcript courtesy of CCBN StreetEvents), however, it came to light that it will offset higher beef costs by discontinuing some costlier menu items, like (you guessed it) the Teriyaki Bowl, whose "unique" ingredients drive up costs. Furthermore, it will move Qdoba to a franchise model and slow down opening new outlets of the Mexican chain.

These sentiments resemble those of Wendy's, which recently said that the high cost of beef will have an impact in the next quarter or two and that it plans to slow down expansion of its Baja Fresh chain.

Jack In the Box posted earnings of $15.6 million, or $0.43 per share (including a refinancing charge of $5.7 million, or $0.15 per share), compared to $21.2 million, or $0.56 per share, in the year-ago period. Same-store sales rose 3.1%, with a 9.2% increase in revenues, to $669.9 million. It upped its 2004 earnings guidance to $1.74 per share, from the previous expectation of $1.68 per share.

Despite the difficult climate and having to duke it out with McDonald's and Wendy's, the company seems willing to reevaluate, and new menu innovations like its upcoming Pannidos sandwiches may yet lure an expanding clientele. Meanwhile, Jack In the Box still has plenty of room to grow. Even though the stock closed yesterday's session just shy of its 52-week high, that's 14 times forward earnings. So, if you are willing to take a chance on prospects, Jack still sounds like a pretty cheap date.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any companies mentioned and has never dated anyone named Jack.
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