California Pizza Kitchen: Downgraded by Rating Groups

We pride ourselves on being timely about alerting readers to material new developments at under-performing BDC-financed companies. In this case, though, we’ve been slow to notice the deterioration underway at iconic restaurant chain California Pizza Kitchen (CPK). In July and August 2019, the company was downgraded by both S&P and Moody’s to speculative grade status. Here’s a sample of what the former said: “We are downgrading CPK to ‘CCC+’ from ‘B-‘ to reflect our view that the company’s capital structure may be unsustainable over the long term.

Moody’s said the following: “CPK’s Caa1 Corporate Family Rating is constrained by its high leverage, modest interest coverage, small scale and geographic concentration relative to comparable casual dining concepts. The company is further constrained by the challenging operating environment which includes soft same store sales growth, with weak traffic trends, and increased labor expense as a percentage of restaurant sales which continue to pressure profitability margins“.

All the above notwithstanding, the 2022 and 2023 Term debt in which seven BDCs have committed $48mn was still valued at a discount of less than (10%) last time results were published in September 2019. As of June 2019 the debt was trading (almost) at par. As of now, though, the publicly traded 2022 Term Loan is trading at a (12.5%-15%) discount, and the more junior 2023 facility at (20%) off. Time to get worried about the $5.0mn of annual investment income that is being generated for the BDCs involved.

There are 6 public BDCs with material exposure, led by Main Street (MAIN) and followed in descending dollar amount by Great Elm (GECC); Monroe Capital (MRCC); Capitala Finance (CPTA); Capital Southwest (CSWC) and Oaktree Specialty (OCSL) – a veritable potpourri of funds with little else in common. There does not seem to be any immediate risk of default, although Moody’s did suggest there was a potential need for a covenant waiver or amendment at year end. That may not have been required or has been granted or could be under discussion. We have a Corporate Credit Rating of 3 on CPK on our 5 point scale, but that could move down quickly in 2020 if performance does not turn around – which seems unlikely – or if PE owner Golden Gate Capital, which bought the famous chain in 2011, does not inject new capital.

We admit the BDC Credit Reporter has been a bit slow to flagging CPK’s credit troubles, but expect to hear much more from us in the months ahead if the company’s debt continues to drop in value. We will say that we’ve been concerned about negative trends in the restaurant sector since late 2018. We’re not yet at the “apocalypse” phase attached to anything in the retail sector, but there are several secular trends – referred to by Moody’s above – that even the best and the brightest restaurant chains are having trouble working through. When you’ve got debt to EBITDA levels of 7x or more – as is the case with CPK and many others – the room for maneuver before a restructuring becomes necessary is limited.