Restaurants on a Roll

At these 8 dining chains, the recession has been good for business.

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It might not be good for America's waistline, but froufrou dining off petite plates is out. The recession has made us hungry for family-size piles of comfort food, skyscraping burgers, and all-you-can-eat fries.

Like other segments of the retail economy, the restaurant industry has struggled over the past two years as unemployment has soared and consumers have curtailed spending. The National Restaurant Association's performance index shows that the industry has been shrinking for 23 months in a row. High-end bistros have fared the worst, with sales at fancy restaurants like Ruth's Chris and Morton's Steakhouse off by 20 percent or more, as corporate customers pare expenses and other diners trade down. Casual- and family-dining places have suffered too, as people eat out less, order more takeout, or cook at home. Even fast-food chains like McDonald's and Burger King have lost business, despite dollar meals and other deals meant to keep the fryers sizzling.

[Slide Show: Restaurants On a Roll.]

Still, as in other whipsawed industries, a few survivors stand to benefit from the widespread pain. To figure out who they are, I analyzed data provided by financial research firm Capital IQ, a unit of Standard & Poor's, to see which publicly owned restaurant companies with at least $250 million in annual sales have gained revenue and market share since the recession began near the end of 2007. Then I researched earnings reports and other sources to separate firms with strong inherent growth from those benefiting from mergers, accounting anomalies, or one-time events.

Of 41 firms on Capital IQ's initial list, only eight made the final cut. All emphasize value, whether it's huge portions or quality for less. And all of these companies are financially healthy, with reasonable debt and the wherewithal to keep expanding despite a credit crunch. Here are the restaurants with the right recipe for lean times:

Buffalo Wild Wings. Hot wings, zesty drinks, low prices, and a funky sports-themed atmosphere seem to draw crowds no matter how the economy's doing. This Minneapolis-based chain with outlets in 41 states has grown rapidly over the past two years, thanks to its plan to open about 60 new restaurants per year. Same-store sales have risen slightly, with expansion juicing overall revenue by about 31 percent so far this year. Profits are up by 34 percent. And the company says the grand openings will continue.

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BJ's Restaurants. Management might be tempted to belly up and drown their sorrows, since the majority of this chain's 89 restaurants are in deep-recession states like California, Arizona, and Florida. But the company's homemade ales, Chicago-style pizza, and deep-dish cookies seem to offer some comfort from the gloom, and nine new restaurant openings in 2009 have helped drive net income up 41 percent so far this year. The company hopes to open nearly a dozen new stores next year and ramp up expansion even more once the economy improves.

Chipotle Mexican Grill. The fast food at these casual eateries feels slow, thanks to organic ingredients, custom combos, and an emphasis on freshness. Traffic is down at many locations, but the company has been able to compensate by raising prices, a recession rarity that signals how popular Chipotle's burritos and spicy salads are. The company has also been able to continue a breakneck expansion plan, with new store openings for 2009 and 2010 likely to total about 250. Prices increases and expansion have boosted profits by 55 percent so far this year.

Olive Garden. More food for less money hits the sweet spot these days, which makes the family-style portions at this casual Italian chain a hit with diners. Olive Garden is a division of Darden Restaurants, which also operates Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse, and a few smaller chains. Olive Garden has been the best performer of the bunch, with same-store sales down slightly but overall sales up, thanks to about 35 new outlets that have opened over the past year. That helped boost overall earnings for the company by 15 percent in the most recent quarter.

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Panera Bread Co. This bakery-cafe chain has viewed the recession as an opportunity to impress customers with its tasty, inexpensive meals—and to steal business from competitors. It's working. An emphasis on artisanal breads, organic chicken, seasonal specialties, and other delicacies hard to find in the suburbs—where most of Panera's nearly 1,400 stores are located—has helped propel earnings 35 percent higher so far this year. The stock has been even more impressive, nearly doubling since the beginning of 2008. The company plans to continue expanding, opening about 20 new stores each quarter for the foreseeable future.

Peet's Coffee & Tea. Instead of the deep price cuts that some premium retailers have used to prime sales, Peet's has doubled down on service at its nearly 200 stores and introduced upscale new offerings such as Godiva-flavored coffees. It has also reached well beyond its base in the western United States and begun selling coffee through grocery stores in New England and other regions. Earnings are up 25 percent so far this year, and Peet's remains ambitious, aiming to offer the highest-quality coffee in every market it serves.

P.F. Chang's. This chain of snazzy Chinese joints disappointed investors recently, with third-quarter earnings that came in below expectations. But overall the firm has performed well, considering that many of its outlets are in malls—ground zero for the retail recession—and one third of them are in hard-hit California, Arizona, and Florida. Despite that, profits are up 35 percent in 2009, thanks to aggressive cost-cutting. The company plans to open nearly 20 new restaurants over the next year and to start selling a line of frozen food. And despite the recent disappointments, the stock is still up more than 40 percent since the start of 2008.

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Texas Roadhouse. Free peanuts and the down-market folksiness of this burger-and-steak chain with the Willie Nelson memorabilia have kept the crowds from fleeing to cheaper joints. To combat the recession, the company added lower-priced items it could still make a profit on, instead of slashing prices on existing menu items. That has helped sustain profits even though same-store sales have dipped slightly. And about 10 restaurant openings this year have helped bring in new revenue. Overall earnings are up 21 percent so far in 2009, a bigger jump than analysts expected, with 15 new restaurants planned for 2010. Best of all, the peanuts will remain free.