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At Contra the Heard, our modus operandi is to find unpopular stocks that are showing signs of regaining their lustre. We want to be early to a great party and then leave when enough delectable canapés have been enjoyed. Of course, we can also acquire some distasteful morsels and then must decide whether to give them a chance to revive or perhaps slink out the back door with a tax loss sale.

When it comes to investing, avoiding buying a loser can be sheer luck. But it can also be due to rigorous analysis combined with a well-developed market instinct. We use screens, watch lists, a point system, and then technical and portfolio analysis before placing a buy order.

Some restaurant stocks appear attractive from a value standpoint. Canadian value investor Prem Watsa holds a 57-per-cent interest in Recipe Unlimited Corp. (formerly Cara Operations Ltd.) through Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd. Evidently, he is keen on this sector.

One stock in the restaurant business that scored high on the Contra point system but fortunately never made it to the order stage was Luby’s Inc., which has been churning out meals since 1947. Unfortunately, it has turned into a bad case of indigestion for shareholders.

Luby’s is based in Houston and owns the Luby’s Cafeteria, Fuddruckers (pardon the name) and Cheeseburger in Paradise brands. The Pappas brothers – who made their fortune from a family-run restaurant chain – own 36.8 per cent of the stock. The company has been in official turnaround mode since early 2018, closing disfavoured restaurants, trimming the cost structure, and selling real estate to pay down net debt of US$30-million. The plan was to sell enough properties to generate US$45-million and thus far US$34.7-million in assets have been hawked.

Since first being considered for the Contra portfolio in 2016, Luby’s has underperformed. For fiscal year 2018, total sales were down by 3 per cent to US$365.2-million and same-store sales fell 0.5 per cent. The net loss was $33.57-million compared with a net loss of $23.26-million in 2017. For the recent second quarter, same-store sales declined 3.3 per cent and total restaurant sales dropped 12 per cent to US$65-million. Net income for the quarter was a US$6-million loss – not including US$12.7-million in gains on property sales.

In response to the pitiable results, activist investor Bandera Partners commenced a proxy fight. They felt the corporate strategy was “too little, too late.” Owning about 9 per cent of the stock, Bandera pushed for four board seats. None was achieved.

Some change is happening though. Luby’s will add two independent directors and chief executive Chris Pappas has reduced his salary to US$1.

Luby’s has traded publicly since 1980 (LUB-NYSE) and the price has been in a steady decline for six years. It recently hit a record low of 99 US cents. Is receivership beckoning? Certainly, it is not out of the question. Fortunately, we can watch from the sidelines while kicking the tires just in case it becomes an appetizing buy.

The business of operating mature brands in a highly competitive restaurant market is a hard one. Just ask Jamie Oliver, Zane Caplansky and Michael Bregman. Mississauga-based Second Cup Ltd., of which Mr. Bregman is the chairman, is on our watch list, but the shares have been distasteful for eight years. Black ink has been spotty, but they have no debt and are buying back shares. Their alliance with National Access Cannabis Corp. to convert stores to cannabis retail is a smoky question mark.

We’re frequently asked about Toronto-based Freshii Inc., but it clearly doesn’t fit our system. It is one of the gold standards for overpromising and underdelivering. Yet, it is tapping into a trendy health and wellness area that appeals to the converted, including a hip millennial demographic.

Avoiding losses by being extremely selective and staying on the sidelines when buys are questionable boosts financial returns. Often doing nothing is better than being active. It might not satisfy itchy trigger fingers, but the money saved will allow for scrumptious summer vacations.

Benj Gallander and Ben Stadelmann are co-editors of Contra the Heard Investment Letter

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