Starting to Sizzle at Ryan's

Ryan's Family Steak Houses (RYAN ) shares have been in the cellar, bumping down from 14 in early 1999 to 7 in late 2000. These depressed prices had prompted management to buy back stock: 50% of the shares over three years. But lately, the stock has made a U-turn, bounding from 9 in January to 15 now. Investors have turned to defensive stocks amid the market's disdain for tech. And Ryan's has enhanced its dining ambience: It introduced "display cooking" in 30 of its 300 restaurants: The chef whips up customers' orders at a grill in the middle of the dining room. "Display cooking has enlivened sales, which have jumped 15% at each eatery where the format has been introduced," says Roger Lipton, who heads RHL Associates, which mainly invests in restaurants. Ryan's plans to have display cooking in all outlets. Lipton has been a bull on Ryan's because he figured the stock was too cheap on an earnings-growth basis. Its new format is such a hit that Lipton has upped his estimates. He sees Ryan's earning $1.40 a share in 2001, vs. a consensus Street estimate of $1.35. For 2002, he expects $1.60 to $1.65, up from the Street's $1.40. His target for the stock: $22 to $24 in 12 to 18 months.

By Gene G. Marcial

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