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The Deal: Ruby Tuesday Loss Widens

Demitri Diakantonis

NEW YORK ( The Deal) --  Ruby Tuesday's future as a public company is looking more and more grim as its losses continue to pile up.

The Maryville, Tenn.-casual dining chain reported Wednesday a net loss of close to $35 million on $276 million in revenue for its fiscal quarter ended Dec. 3, compared to a net loss of $4.2 million on $300 million in revenue for the same quarter one year ago.

Ruby Tuesday attributed the declining sales to increased competition in the casual dining sector and an unsuccessful format change at the restaurant.

To help cut additional losses, Ruby Tuesday said it will close 30 underperforming restaurants this year. Some company-owned properties will be put up for sale, while leases on others set to expire will not be renewed. Reports surfaced last year that Ruby Tuesday hired Goldman Sachs  to explore strategic alternatives. CEO and chairman James Buettgen declined to discuss those rumors during a Wednesday conference call.

As Ruby Tuesday continues to lose money, some industry sources think potential bidders will wait until the chain's value declines further before making an approach. "It's really hard to kill the brand," said one industry banker not involved with the company. "Somebody will likely see value in the brand."

Sun Capital Partners of Boca Raton, Fla., and San Francisco's Golden Gate Capital have been mentioned by sources as likely bidders for Ruby Tuesday.

Closing 30 of its nearly 800 restaurants is likely just the beginning for Ruby Tuesday. Industry watchers expect additional store closings to follow, especially if Ruby Tuesday's sales continue to fall.

Buettgen admitted during the conference call that the company erred in its attempt to shift from a casual dining chain to a more upscale restaurant, losing core customers to higher prices. Like so many of its competitors, Ruby Tuesday recently rolled out flatbreads and a pretzel-bun burger in an attempt to lure customers back as part of its menu overhaul.

"The reality of this transformation effort was that the changes did not resonate with Ruby Tuesday core users," Buettgen said during the call. "As a result, many loyal guests quickly stopped visiting as frequently or stopped visiting at all."

He added: "The brand was not able to attract new, more affluent, polished casual diners." As a result, the brand experienced a decline in guest count and sales. Buettgen became Ruby Tuesday's CEO in late 2012, replacing founder Sandy Beall who retired.

Bond investors have retreated from Ruby Tuesday on the heels of its weak earnings report. According to a Standard & Poor's Leveraged Comment & Data report Thursday, the bonds on its $250 million senior notes, due in 2020, have been trading at about 88 points, down from 94 points as of Thursday afternoon. Meanwhile, Ruby Tuesday continues to burn through cash. Between June 4 and Dec. 3, Ruby Tuesday's cash pile dwindled to $23.6 million from $53 million.

Ruby Tuesday shares were trading 1% higher, at $6.05, on Thursday afternoon with its market capitalization near $376 million. The company did not return calls on Thursday.

--Written by Demitri Diakantonis in New York 

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