Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM) remains in an expensive technology arms race against McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD) and Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX). It’s also in an expensive creativity race with Restaurant Brands International (NYSE:QSR).
Consumers, however, are reading a different story. They’re reading that Yum! unit Taco Bell recalled 2.3 million pounds of seasoned beef over possible contamination. It reminded some of a decade-old battle over whether there was much meat in the tacos at all.
People are chuckling over that debate with their lattes this morning. For investors, that story is a classic nothingburger. But if it reminds you of how Yum! has scored a 21% gain so far in 2019, it’s going to be tasty.
The Tech Race
Johnson was recently named CIO of the Year by CIO Dive. He has a reputation for “a maniacal focus on cost” and being “a good coach for his team.” At Yum! he will be working alongside Chief Strategy Officer Gavin Felder. Felder had been chief financial officer for the KFC unit. The duo’s charge is to integrate technology across all operations and automate the restaurants.
It’s going to be an uphill climb. Starbucks began the automation trend early in this decade. McDonald’s got a shout-out during the recent Democratic debate for getting rid of cashiers.
McDonald’s has also been increasing its presence in Silicon Valley. It bought Dynamic Yield to automate its drive-thru menus based on weather, traffic and time of day. It is buying Apprente for its voice ordering technology. The company has also bought a piece of Plexure, a mobile app vendor.
The Yum! Brands Menu Race
Then there’s the menu race. This went into overdrive when Restaurant Brands’ Popeyes unit pushed out a chicken sandwich to match that of privately held Chick-fil-A. Restaurant Brands also brought Impossible Foods’ burgers to its Burger King units.
The strategy is to move alongside other brands, as in 2012’s Doritos Locos Taco at Taco Bell — Doritos is part of PepsiCo (NASDAQ:PEP). Now Pizza Hut is rolling out a “Cheez-It” pizza, a calzone made with the Kellogg’s (NYSE:K) snack cracker. Via KFC, Yum! Brands is also launching a “Doughnut Sandwich,” a riff on chicken and waffles.
This creativity extends to grocery stores, where Taco Bell will soon sell chips made with cheddar cheese. The idea of making cheese into chips has been around a while. (Try making them with mounds of good ground Parmesan, on a silicone mat, in the oven for 6 minutes at 400 degrees). Taco Bell already sells a variety of chips in convenience stores. The new crackers will be a follow-on to its toasted cheddar chalupa, with cheese baked into the taco shell.
Buy YUM Stock Later
With its current gains YUM is selling at a trailing price-to-earnings ratio of 26.3. The 42 cent per share dividend yields just 1.5%. That’s expensive. The one-year price target for analysts is just $120 per share, $8 higher than its Oct. 17 opening price.
Adding technology and rolling out new menu items is going to cost money, which is why some analysts think the shares should be avoided. But both tech and menu creativity get a big reward from customers, who have tired of the same old thing. Improving fast food’s technology is especially valuable because it locks customers into the brand while lowering overall costs.
If you’re in your 30s and can wait for a return, then YUM stock should be on your radar, at least as a means of diversification. Put it on your list, wait for your opening and buy a few days after everyone screams “sell.”
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of the historical mystery romance The Reluctant Detective Travels in Time available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned shares in QSR.