Chez Gerard branches out: The Investment Column

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The Independent Online
Groupe Chez Gerard's latest acquisition, of Livebait, a fish restaurant near London's Waterloo station, takes the Soho Soho to Scotts and Bertorelli's group to nine restaurants and moves it out of the company's West End heartland. The opening of a site in Bishopsgate this summer will take the chain into double figures and add a City watering hole to its selection of upper-middle market restaurants.

The company, which floated in 1994, is undergoing a busy expansion phase which showed in half-year figures to December that disappointed the market with a small fall in pre-tax profits from pounds 1.35m to pounds 1.31m thanks to longer than expected, and more expensive than hoped for, refurbishment programmes at two restaurants. Earnings per share slipped from 5.2p to 5.1p, although the fall didn't prevent a rise in the well covered dividend from 0.9p to 1.0p.

The company warned at the last annual meeting that profits would be hit for about pounds 200,000 by the over-runs on the refurbishments. In fact the damage was closer to pounds 300,000, and the shares slipped 6p to 256.5p. Arguably it would have been possible to avoid putting 25 per cent of the chain effectively hors de combat for nearly half a year, but at least the sites are now up and running and the disruption is out of the way.

The rest of the business performed well in the half with like-for-like sales up more than 7 per cent as the capital's foodie boom continued. With 24 million visitors to London expected to spend pounds 7.5bn this year, a quarter of it on food, trading should remain strong.

Whether that justifies the premium rating the shares trade on is a moot point. On the basis of full-year profits of pounds 3.32m this year and just over pounds 4m next time, the shares stand on a prospective price/earnings ratio of 20, falling to 16. The shares have moved sideways for a year or so and that's unlikely to change.