Habit Looks to Trade on ‘Better-Burger’ Standing in IPO

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RESTAURANTS: Recent growth, timing of offering look favorable

The Habit Restaurants Inc. in Irvine appears to have a number of factors working in its favor for an initial public offering that’s expected sometime this week, including some that reflect its strong run of recent years and others that indicate the chain is well-positioned for the future.

Among them:

* Habit has staked out a spot in the meaty middle of the “better burger” category with an effective mix of competitive standing on price and quality.

* The burger chain has quadrupled in size in seven years and now has 99 locations in four states.

* Habit plans more growth in 2015, notably on the East Coast and other new regional markets.

* It’s the first better-burger chain to go to market, and the move comes just a few months after the IPO by Costa Mesa-based fast-food chicken chain El Polio Loco Holdings Inc., whose shares have more than doubled since their July debut.

Habit’s offering of 5 million shares at $ 14 to $16 a share would put about 20% of the company on the market and raise about $66 million for the parent of the Habit Burger Grill chain after costs, according to its Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

Habit Restaurants Inc. would trade on Nasdaq under the ticker symbol “HABT.” Its market capitalization at $15 a share would be about $380 million.

When El Polio Loco’s similarly priced offering-$15 a share-hit July 25, its stock quickly traded above $20, and it now trades at about $35 for a market cap of some $1.3 billion.

Habit has been busy with expansion plans in the run-up to its public offering. It signed master franchise deals for 15 units in Las Vegas and 25 in Seattle in May. The first restaurant in a planned East Coast expansion came in August in Fair Lawn, N.J.

Growth

Habit was founded in 1969 in Santa Barbara.

Greenwich, Conn.-based private equity firm KarpReilly LLC led a group in 2007 that bought a majority stake. It will own 37% of the company after the offering, with voting control of 55%, the SEC filings said.

Habit had $162 million in sales for the 12 months ended Sept. 30, according to the documents. It ranked No. 16 this year on the Business Journal’s list of OC-based restaurant chains.

Net income has grown from $2.4 million in 2011 to $5.7 million in 2013.

It has had 43 consecutive quarters of samestore sales growth, and average unit volumes have grown from $ 1.2 million in 2009 to $ 1.7 million for the trailing 52 weeks as of Sept. 30, the filing said.

“They have strong leadership and strong growth,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Chicago-based restaurant consultant Technomic Inc.

Tristano said Habit benefits from being the first prominent hamburger chain to go public this year. New York-based Shake Shack, which has about 50 units, is also considering an IPO, according to reports.

“If you believe in this segment, this is the first available investment,” Tristano said.

He attributed several restaurant IPOs this year to private equity investments that led to “operators trimming the fat” and then tapping the public markets to slash debt.

El Pollo Loco raised $113 million to pay down part of $289 million in debt when it went public.

That and a prior refinancing cut its debt service from $36 million a year to $10 million. It said resulting cash flow would fund growth.

Habit said it would use $41 million of its offering proceeds to close out debt, with $25 million for working capital, according to the filing.

Company representatives declined to comment for this article.

‘Better Burger’

Tristano placed Habit firmly in the “better burger” category: chains with a higher-quality hamburger than a $2 McDonald’s or Burger King selection, but at a lower price-$3 to $5 compared with $8 to $10-than restaurants such as The Counter.

Habit’s roots are in fast food, and “they’ve evolved toward fast casual, so they’re in-between,” he said.

He said El Pollo Loco has staked out similar territory-somewhere between Chipotle and Taco Bell.

“Quality and price means a better deal for lower- and middle-income customers,” Tristano said.

He said Habit-again, like El Pollo Loco- is strong in California, but sounded a note of caution.

“They’ll have strong regional competition in other markets,” he said.

One example: Prairie du Sac, Wise.-based Culver’s, which is similar in style to Habit and has 450 company-owned and franchise locations in 20 mainly Midwest states.

Tristano said Habit has shown it can do well against established competitors, including Irvine-based In-N-Out Burgers, a standardbearer in the better-burger category.

“They have to introduce themselves to a new audience, but they can be competitive,” Tristano said. “And they did well in the Consumer Reports [national] test early this year.”

Habit Burger Grill: 99 units and counting, initial public offering slated for this week

The Habit Restaurants Inc. in Irvine appears to have a number of factors working in its favor for an initial public offering that’s expected sometime this week, including some that reflect its strong run of recent years and others that indicate the chain is well-positioned for the future. Among them:

* Habit has staked out a spot in the meaty middle of the “better burger” category with an effective mix of competitive standing on price and quality.

* The burger chain has quadrupled in size in seven years and now has 99 locations in four states.

* Habit plans more growth in 2015, notably on the East Coast and other new regional markets.

* It’s the first better-burger chain to go to market, and the move comes just a few months after the IPO by Costa Mesa-based fast-food chicken chain El Polio Loco Holdings Inc., whose shares have more than doubled since their July debut.

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