The Wendy's Co (WEN) Q4 2018 Earnings Conference Call Transcript

  • In Business
  • 2019-02-21 21:25:27Z
  • By Motley Fool Transcribers, The Motley Fool

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The Wendy's Co (NASDAQ: WEN)
Q4 2018 Earnings Conference Call
Feb. 21, 2019, 8:30 a.m. ET


Prepared Remarks:


Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by. Welcome to The Wendy's Company Earnings Results Conference Call. I will now turn the conference over to Greg Lemenchick, Director, Investor Relations. Please go ahead, sir.

Greg Lemenchick -- Director, Investor Relations

Thank you and good morning, everyone. Today's conference call and webcast includes a PowerPoint presentation, which is available on the investors section of our website,

Before we begin, please take note of the Safe Harbor statement that appears at the end of our earnings release. This disclosure reminds investors that certain information we may discuss today is forward-looking. Various factors could affect our results and cause those results to differ materially from the projections set forth in our forward-looking statements.

Also some of today's comments will reference non-GAAP financial measures such as adjusted revenue, adjusted EBITDA, adjusted EBITDA margin, adjusted earnings per share, adjusted tax rate, free cash flow, and systemwide sales. Investors should refer to our reconciliations of non-GAAP financial measures to the most directly comparable GAAP measure.

Our conference call today will provide an update on key initiatives from our President and Chief Executive Officer, Todd Penegor, and a review of our preliminary fourth quarter and full year 2018 results as well as our 2019 outlook from our Chief Financial Officer, Gunther Plosch. From there, we will open up the line for questions.

With that, I will hand things over to Todd.

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thanks, Greg, and good morning, everyone. I'd like to open today's remarks with the Wendy's vision, as it is important to remember that our goal is to become the world's most thriving and beloved restaurant brand. Everything we do at Wendy's needs to ladder up to this vision to build an even stronger brand. Our vision is powerful and you will see throughout our remarks today that we are becoming more focused and in turn set out for sustained long-term growth that will help us achieve our vision.

Before we dive into 2019, let's begin with a few highlights from 2018. We demonstrated that we are an efficient growth company that is showcasing meaningful systemwide sales growth of 2.5% on the backdrop of same-restaurant sales growth and global restaurant expansion, which is translating into significant free cash flow generation. We achieved strong financial results with 7% adjusted EBITDA growth, 51% adjusted EPS growth and a 37% increase in our free cash flows, which is a testament to our resilient business model.

And finally, as you know, we monetized our Inspire Brands ownership interest in August for $450 million before tax and approximately $350 million after tax. With this additional cash as well as our strong free cash flow generation, we were able to return approximately $350 million to shareholders in the way of share repurchases and dividends.

I quickly want to spend some time on the consistency of our growth over the last several years. I am proud to say that we have achieved our eighth consecutive year of North American same-restaurant sales growth, which is a streak we plan on keeping alive in 2019 and beyond. Throughout 2018 we focused on retaining and growing our customer base and this strategy was successful. As a result, we continue to grow our traffic share in the QSR Burger category, which is something we have accomplished over the last three years.

As we move into 2019, we are partnering with our franchisees to ensure we are providing consumers with promotions that continue to bring them into our restaurants more often that are operationally sound and are profitable. We believe that QSR is the place to be with more than 80% of all restaurant business and that we are well positioned to win now and over the long term, as we can deliver on the consumer need for speed, convenience and affordability, while separating ourselves with quality.

With that, I will now hand things over to GP, who will provide more details on our 2018 results.

Gunther Plosch -- Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Todd. As a reminder, we will be discussing all results versus the prior year on a recast basis, which is inclusive of the impact of revenue recognition and other P&L reclassifications. Please refer to the tables in the back of our earnings release for a reconciliation of these recast financial statements. In the fourth quarter of 2018, we ran the $1 any size fries offering throughout the majority of the quarter, pairing it with two premium limited time offers, the Sauce and Bacon Cheeseburger and the Bacon Maple Chicken Sandwich.

While our high-low offerings in the fourth quarter drove positive same-restaurant sales, they did not create the sales and profitability we had planned due to lower mix benefit. Adjusted revenues increased by 4.4%. This was driven by an increase in company restaurant sales, due to the company acquiring 16 restaurants in the Columbus market, as part of our ongoing system optimization strategy and a 1.2% increase in company same-restaurant sales, in addition to increased franchise royalties.

Year-over-year company restaurant margin decreased 60 basis points to 16% driven by labor rate inflation and higher promotional activity that drove a lower average check. This was partially offset by pricing actions. We recorded a $27.5 million legal reserve in the fourth quarter of 2018, relating to the previously announced settlement of the financial institution case, which impacted our G&A. Excluding this reserve, G&A was $44 million compared to $51 million in 2017. This decrease was primarily the result of the lower incentive compensation accrual and lower salaries and benefits as a result of the company's G&A savings initiative.

Adjusted EBITDA grew by 10% to $107.8 million and adjusted EBITDA margin expanded by 160 basis points. Adjusted earnings per share increased by 78% to $0.16 in quarter four versus the prior year of $0.09.

Moving on to our full year financial results. Adjusted revenues increased by 4.7%. This was driven by an increase in company restaurant sales due to company acquisitions and a 1.3% increase in same-restaurant sales. Also contributing to the growth was an increase in franchise royalties, as well as an increase in rental revenue. Year-over-year company restaurant margin decreased 100 basis points to 15.8%, driven by labor rate inflation, commodity inflation and high insurance cost, partially offset by pricing actions.

G&A expense was $190 million compared to $204 million in 2017, excluding the previously mentioned legal reserve. This 7% decrease was primarily the result of the lower incentive compensation accrual and lower salaries and benefits as a result of the company's G&A savings initiative. We had strong adjusted EBITDA growth of 7% in 2018, as we continue to showcase the resiliency of our business model. We benefited from our ongoing G&A savings initiative and the lower incentive compensation accrual, net rental income and increased royalties due to positive same-restaurant sales and new restaurant development.

Adjusted earnings per share increased significantly to $0.59, which was an increase of 51%. This was driven primarily from the positive impact of the lower tax rate from the U.S. tax law changes and the benefit from stock options activity, an increase in adjusted EBITDA and fewer shares outstanding as a result of the company's share repurchase programs.

Now moving on to some details around our strong free cash flow growth in 2018, our hardwork to drive cash flows is paying-off, as we delivered strong free cash flow growth of 37% compared to 2017. The increase was driven by the favorable impact from our core working capital initiative, cash taxes primarily from the U.S. tax law changes, lower capital and our core earnings growth. This was partially offset by the cash impact related to our G&A savings initiative.

With that, I will pass things back over to Todd to talk about our 2019 strategic initiatives.

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thanks G.P. We are proud of the progress we made in 2018 and over the last several years to strengthen our brand by ensuring more customers enjoy, Wendy's more often by expanding our number of restaurants, reimaging existing restaurants and executing a well-balanced marketing approach.

In 2019, we will continue to strengthen and build the foundation of the brand in partnership with our franchisees to bring our growth formula to life. Our formula is very simple, accelerate same-restaurant sales in North America and drive global restaurant expansion with a strong restaurant economic model to fuel this growth.

With organic same-restaurant sales at the forefront to drive a healthy restaurant economic model which is job 1, we will evolve our marketing tactics to drive better mix benefits, we will drive operational excellence and we will further invest in our digital capabilities.

Accelerating the pace at which we opened restaurants around the globe to give folks more access to our brand is vital to our growth story and we have now delivered three consecutive years of net new unit growth. We will continue to accelerate North America. And on the international front, we will focus on building a stronger foundation in 2019 under new leadership that we believe will pay dividends in the long run.

I will walk you through the building blocks on how we plan to accelerate North America same-restaurant sales in 2019. As I mentioned earlier, we already have the benefit of customers coming into our restaurants so we are starting from a good place. Our one more visit, one more dollar approach, will be our focal point and you've already seen this start to come to life. This strategy creates a platform to capitalize on our mix opportunity which will drive an acceleration of same-restaurant sales.

The introduction of the Made to Crave hamburger line in February and the $5 Giant JBC that ran in January are examples of this. Our Made to Crave innovation which features three new to the menu sandwiches is the most significant change to our premium menu in more than a decade. We are very excited to expand our line up to cater to different taste of today's consumer with a continued focus on our fresh, never frozen beef quality.

We continue to partner with our franchisees to ensure we're providing customers with promotions and offers that bring them into our restaurants more often that are operationally sound and that are profitable. Building on our progress the last few years, we are working to take our operational excellence across the system to another level to drive a more consistent customer experience that will allow our brand to stand out versus our peers.

Under Bob Wright's leadership, we now have a dedicated leader in place to oversee our company restaurant operations. We have always said that, we like having skin in the game so our company portfolio can be the brand's door for our franchise system. With this dedicated focus, we plan to accelerate leadership to our restaurant performance and set the pace for the system in operational excellence in 2019 and beyond.

Our vision says it all, delight every customer period. Consistency is critical for us to win. We have a keen focus in 2019 to have a more consistent experience for our customers so they will want to keep coming back. And we have provided the system the training and the tools to bring this to life. We also see speed and throughput as an opportunity and we are working on several initiatives in our restaurants that will help drive this.

Lastly making our restaurants easier to operate is a major focus and will go a long way in supporting these goals. We have made meaningful progress over the last couple of years with our consumer facing digital capabilities. We launched a unified Wendy's approximately, initiated the rollout of mobile ordering, began using mobile offers and have rolled out delivery to 60% of the North America system.

As you saw in the release this morning, we plan to invest an incremental $25 million to build a stronger foundation across our digital platforms with a heighten sense of urgency moving forward. As part of this investment, we will stand up our digital experience organization in 2019 which will be led by Laura Titas who has recently joined our senior leadership team. Laura reports to Kurt Kane to ensure that our digital and marketing efforts are fully tied together with the consumer driven point of view.

As part of this new organization, we have also engaged Accenture to leverage their best-in-class expertise and we will be partnering with them to drive acceleration in this space. The structure we have created will allow us to flex capacity and capabilities as needed.

We're also making technology equipment investments in digital scanners on behalf of the North American system that will provide many benefits such as increased throughput in our restaurants, as well as better access to consumer insights to support our digital initiatives.

We believe that being successful in digital will be a competitive advantage for us as consumers are craving customization speed and convenience all of which can be enhanced through our platforms. G.P. will provide more clarity later in the presentation on how these investments are impacting our financial outlook for 2019.

We will continue our app acquisition strategy to drive more app downloads and increase our number of monthly active users through our mobile offers. We have also enhanced the customer experience in the app by making it more user-friendly and easier to navigate and consumers have been giving us positive feedback on these changes.

We have begun rolling mobile ordering out in our U.S. restaurants and we expect to have it activated across the U.S. system by the end of 2019. It is critical to have scale and order to create awareness and we plan to start doing that this year. Having the system live with mobile ordering will allow us to begin to build a one-to-one relationship with our customers, which is the ultimate goal.

Expansion of our delivery footprint with DoorDash and Skip the Dishes paced ahead of our expectations in 2018. We have grown up our delivery footprint to 60% coverage in North America and are expecting to grow this to 80% with our partners by the end of 2019.

We will continue to drive more awareness through our advertising efforts and our partners are doing the same as many consumers still don't know that we offer delivery. Getting this to scale, will allow us to fully understand what the potential of delivery could be in the long run.

Now let's go deeper into our focus on accelerating our global restaurant footprint. On a global basis, we grew our footprint by approximately 1.2% in 2018 resulting in three consecutive years of global restaurant expansion. We expect our growth to reaccelerate in 2019 to approximately 1.5% with about one-third coming from international and two-thirds from North America. You can expect the pacing of openings in 2019 by quarter to be similar to the cadence we had in 2018.

Let's now dive into North American development, where we continue to make great progress. We are pleased with our 2018 North American development results, as we came in at our expectations, growing by about 1%. Our groundbreaker incentive program is off to a great start, signing up incremental developments commitments, as franchisee engagement continues to increase.

These new restaurants are coming from a mix of franchisees of all sizes, including first-time builders who did not have a development agreement previously, as well as experienced developers signing up for incremental restaurants on top of their original commitments. This is very encouraging, as we look at new restaurant development in 2019 and beyond behind a strong pipeline.

Our smart family of designs remained focused on lowering the investment cost of new restaurants, while creating a relevant customer experience. We now have investment options ranging from $1.4 million to $2 million that fit all trade areas and sales volumes.

The lower investment options, along with our best-in-class incentive program has created a compelling economic proposition that has driven excitement across the system. Our franchises dedication and commitment to growth gives us confidence, as we look to accelerate again in 2019 in our quest to provide more access to the brand. Growing our international business is critical to our long-term growth and we are gaining momentum under Abigail Pringle's leadership.

Let's start with some highlights from 2018. International systemwide sales grew 13%, mainly due to new restaurant development, but also healthy same-restaurant sales growth. We did miss our net restaurant goal by growing about 6% due to some franchisee transitions and the timing of opening shifting into 2019.

As we look toward the future, the global development team is reexamining our plans to ensure we are building a stronger foundation to support sustainable long-term growth. Over the first few months of Abigail's tenure, she has reorganized the team and added new talent to unlock significant growth in the future by thinking differently.

This team will leverage the North American playbook that has been highly successful over the last five years to bring best practices in areas such as franchisee recruiting, new market entry, restaurant development and system optimization. We are committed to grow the Wendy's brand internationally and we believe it will be a meaningful contributor to our growth in the future.

We will provide more details on our vision and strategy at our Investor Day later this year, which I am confident will give you the reasons to believe that we can significantly grow our international footprint.

All of this ladders up to our Wendy's growth formula, which is accelerating same-restaurant sales growth in North America and expanding our global restaurant footprint. We expect to deliver 3% to 4% of systemwide sales in 2019, which is driven partially by net new unit growth of approximately 1.5% with the remaining coming from same-restaurant sales growth. We are excited about the plans we have in place.

And with that, I will now hand things back over to G.P. who will provide our 2019 financial outlook and our new 2020 goals.

Gunther Plosch -- Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Todd. I would now like to walk you through our 2019 outlook. As we mentioned earlier in the presentation, we expect to make an incremental $25 million investment into our digital platforms and you will see this within the guidance we are providing. We have also streamlined the number of metrics we are guiding to for our annual outlook in an effort to simplify and focus our key metrics.

As we move into 2019, our roadmap remained unchanged. We are an efficient growth company that is showcasing meaningful systemwide sales growth on a backdrop of same-restaurant sales and global restaurant expansion, which is translating into significant free cash flow generation.

Now let's take a deeper look into our key financial metrics, starting with adjusted EBITDA. In 2019, we expect adjusted EBITDA to grow approximately 2.5% to 4.5%, which includes approximately $10 million related to the one-time digital investment in scanners that will be recorded in franchise expense. Excluding these investment, our expected organic growth is 5% to 7%.

Contributing to our adjusted EBITDA growth is royalty revenue driven by same-restaurant sales and new restaurant development as well as company restaurant margin expansion. To accelerate our restaurant margin performance, we are focusing on driving same-restaurant sales and productivity initiatives, which will be partially offset by expected headwinds in labor inflation of 3% to 4% and commodity inflation of 1% to 2%.

We expect G&A of approximately $195 million, which is a slight headwind to 2018 driven primarily by resetting our incentive compensation plan and adding additional resources to support our digital experience and international organizations partially offset by savings from our ongoing G&A savings initiative.

Moving on to adjusted EPS. We expect adjusted EPS growth of approximately 3.5% to 7%, which includes the one-time digital investment in scanners. Excluding this impact, we're expecting a healthy adjusted EPS increase of 8.5% to 12%, driven by adjusted EBITDA and a tailwind from our new $225 million share repurchase authorization. This will be partially offset by a year-over-year increase in the tax rate driven primarily by the elevated stock options activity we had in 2018.

In 2019, we expect free cash flow of approximately $230 million to $240 million, excluding the $20 million tax affected cash outflow related to the FI case. Driving this cash generation is core earnings growth, lower reorganization cost and working capital improvements. This will be offset by the $25 million investment we are making in digital and the headwind in cash taxes due to an increase in our adjusted tax rate.

The digital investment is comprised of capital expenditures of $15 million related to our partnership with Accenture and the $10 million investment in digital scanners we are making on behalf of the North American system. In a moment, I will talk through how we expect free cash flow to accelerate in 2020.

One of the keys to our ability to invest back into our business and return cash to shareholders is our flexible capital structure. Our maturities are laddered nicely with our next tranche of debt not coming due until 2022. And all of our currently funded debt has been issued with attractive fixed rates, which protect us against interest fluctuation. Our pro forma leverage ratio at the end of 2018 was five times and we're expecting a leverage ratio in the range of 4.5 times to 5.5 times in 2019 and beyond.

We would expect to naturally delever over time due to our continued earnings growth and scheduled amortization payments. Our capital allocation strategy remains unchanged, which is investing in growth of the Wendy's brand as our number one priority, followed by sustaining an attractive dividend and utilizing excess cash to repurchase shares.

In light of our strong free cash flow growth and in accordance with our stated capital allocation policy, we recently announced a significant increase in our quarterly dividend of 18% from $0.085 to $0.10 per share, starting with our March dividend payment. This is another meaningful dividend increase for us and we have now increased our dividend seven years in a row.

We also announced this morning that the board has approved a new share repurchase authorization for $225 million that expires in March of 2020 that will replace our current authorization. Today, we are providing new 2020 goals for global systemwide sales and free cash flow which continues to show that we are growing the Wendy's brand.

We expect global systemwide sales to grow from $10.5 billion in 2018 to $11.5 billion in 2020 on the backdrop of global restaurant development and accelerated same-restaurant sales growth, which includes tailwinds from our digital investments and our Image Activation program.

We expect our free cash flow to increase to $275 million in 2020, which is an increase of approximately $45 million compared to 2018. This will be primarily driven by core earnings growth, working capital improvements and a slight reduction in capital expenditures.

As a reminder we're an efficient growth company that is showcasing meaningful systemwide sales growth on the backdrop of same-restaurant sales and global restaurant expansion, which is translating into significant free cash flow generation.

And with that, I'll hand things back over to Todd.

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thanks G.P. As I close today's formal remarks by revisiting The Wendy's Way, I am excited to share that 2019 marks our 50th Anniversary as a brand. Our goal continues to deliver on the same mission Dave Thomas had when he opened his first Wendy's Restaurant in 1969, to craft a delicious quality fresh never frozen hamburger and serve it fast in a clean and comfortable environment.

In order to bring The Wendy's Way to life, just like Dave did when he opened his first restaurant, we must remain focused on investing in the quality of our food, providing great value, delivering exceptional service and elevating our restaurants.

We will bring this to life through our focus in 2019 to enhance the customer experience, through digital and driving operational excellence to ensure customers have a great experience at all of our restaurants. We will continue to provide more access to the brand around the world, through our global development plans and create a place customers love to go, through our reimaging program.

It's important to remember that our system is one family and we wouldn't be able to do any of this without the support and dedication of our franchisees. With the passion they bring toward the brand day-in and day-out I know that we will become the world's most driving and beloved restaurant brand.

Thank you for joining us today. I will now hand things back over to Greg before we open it up for Q&A.

Greg Lemenchick -- Director, Investor Relations

Thanks, Todd. Before we get started, I'd like to share a piece of news about our Investor Relations team. After two successful years as a Manager of Investor Relations, Lauren Cutright will be transitioning into a new role in our finance organization in March and Abi King will replace Lauren as the Manager of Investor Relations. We are excited for both of them in their new roles.

Now on to the IR calendar. First up is the filing of our 2018 10-K which is planned for next Wednesday, February 27. On Wednesday, March 6, G.P., Abi and I will head to the UBS conference in Boston and then attend the JPMorgan conference the following week on March 14 in Las Vegas.

On Tuesday March 19, Todd, G.P., Abi and I will be in New York City for a roadshow with Morgan Stanley. And the following day on March 20 we will do a roadshow in the Mid-Atlantic region with Goldman Sachs. If you are interested in meeting with us in any of these events, please contact the respective sell-side analyst or equity sales contact at the host firm.

We also announced today that on Thursday, October 10, we plan to host an Investor Day at our headquarters in Dublin, Ohio, where we will provide a summary of our long-term strategic vision and issue additional long-term guidance.

With that, we are now ready to take your questions.

Questions and Answers:


(Operator Instructions) Our first question will come from the line of Michael Gallo with C.L. King. Please go ahead.

Michael Gallo -- CL King -- Analyst

Hi. Good morning. A couple of questions, Todd and G.P. When I look at the digital investments that you're making, I was wondering, one, if we should expect those will be kind of ratable or there'll be kind of lumpy across the year?

And then, I was wondering, if you can speak to some of the potential positives, what that's going to help you enable, I would assume, perhaps, mobile order and pickup will be a big part of that. But can you speak to at all, what kind of benefits and when we'll start to see the benefits for some of those investments? Thanks.

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. Thanks Mike. We really want to accelerate our consumer facing digital initiatives and we do think that's where the customer's going. And the great news is, it complements our operating model in our restaurants, right? We can take more orders into the kitchen, where full customization, were make to order and all of these tools will complement that.

At the end of the day, what we really want to do is create a better connection to our consumer and gather the data and have a one-to-one connection with everything that we're doing. And we've made great progress. We've got a lot of tools out there, but we want to go even faster.

And part of the move that we're making in 2019 and we telegraphed this a few months back or few quarters back was to really leverage an external third-party partner and we've got Accenture in the fold, we've got Laura Titus who we brought in from Accenture.

And if you think about us really leveraging those partnerships, we can be less capital intensive. We really have a flexible demand and we have some great talent to complement the talent that we have internally.

And you'll start to see those benefits take place throughout the year, but I really think this is an investment in the future. We're playing a long game to really show accelerated growth and we need to be out in front of it and some of that you'll see in the pacing and sequencing of our investments. And I'll turn that over to G.P. to talk about that.

Gunther Plosch -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes, Mike. On the finance side, it's going to be a little bit lumpy, right? The $10 million scanner investment is not going to repeat in 2020. So it's going to be a source for accelerated EBITDA growth from 2019 into 2020, if that's going to disappear from the franchise expense line.

The investment in Accenture is sitting at about $15 million on the capital line and we would expect toward 2020 that we are shifting down toward the $65 million capital range with reductions coming out of old buckets of our capital.

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

So, Mike, yes, when we get then the scanners up and running, right? There's a lot of benefits for the scanners. It really helps our crew out along the way to make things a little simpler with accepting coupons with paper and digital. It really will help us over time on the digital payment acceptance front and it really helps us accumulate a lot of great information on our consumer to make sure we can create even a better experience for them, so it could drive throughput over time.

Michael Gallo -- CL King -- Analyst

Thanks, very much.


Your next question will come from the line of Eric Gonzalez with KeyBanc Capital Markets. Please go ahead.

Eric Gonzales -- KeyBanc Capital Markets -- Analyst

Hey thanks. Last quarter you made a comment that you actually gained share of traffic within the QSR hamburger category. And I think in your prepared comments you said that that was the case for the year. So I guess the question is did that -- how did that play out in the fourth quarter? Did you gain share traffic versus the hamburger category and also sales -- of sales in the category? And then I think you commented in the past that how change outside the hamburger category taking new share. Obviously, we've seen results and talk about (inaudible) but are there any other categories or brands that might be encroaching our territory? Thanks.

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. Thanks Eric. If you look at our traffic in the fourth quarter, it was our 13th consecutive quarter of holding or gaining hamburger category traffic share. So we're doing a nice job bringing in more customers more often. Our opportunity is how do we continue to trade them up and a lot of the discussion we had last quarter and will continue to have as we adjust our calendar is, how do we create one not only one more visit, but one more dollar as we bring the customers into our restaurants. So we had a little bit of pressure on our dollar traffic share within the burger category. But we made the adjustments in our calendar and you actually see that in the market today. As we moved into the beginning of this year, we've moved in our trading folks up from our 4 for $4 into the $5 Giant JBC.

We continue to trade folks up into our premium offerings with our great tasting, fresh never frozen hamburgers with the Made to Crave lineup, so with three all-new hamburgers out into the marketplace. And even before that we had a nice run with the Bacon Maple Chicken Sandwich, so we do feel like we got a really good balanced high-low calendar that we've talked about in the past, but we've made some adjustments to that to really make sure that we not only connect to the consumer, but we drive strong restaurant economic model for all of us.

Eric Gonzales -- KeyBanc Capital Markets -- Analyst

Thanks. If I can also sneak one in on Image Activation. Could you maybe update us on where you stand? What percent of the system has been remodeled? And then will you expect a lift from remodels to be next year or in 2019?

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. If you look at Image Activation, we've got 80% of the company restaurants now Image Activated and we've got 50% of the system Image Activated. Our goal would have been to be at 40% so we're pacing ahead of that. As you think about all the investment decisions that a franchisee has in new builds, Image Activation, investments and technology. We're working with them on joint business plans to make sure we've got a pace and sequenced out to get the best return. On the investments and the returns, I'll turn that over to GP to talk a little bit about that.

Gunther Plosch -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes. Returns and investments are unchanged. We are getting the lift that we always talked about depending on investment level. Mid-single digit to high-single digit lift that are permanent which then drive attractive financial returns and payout out of the investment.

Eric Gonzales -- KeyBanc Capital Markets -- Analyst



Your next question comes from the line of Brian Bittner with Oppenheimer. Please go ahead.

Brian Bittner -- Oppenheimer -- Analyst

Thanks. Good morning. In 2019 same-store sales assumptions around 1.5% to 2.5% what's driving the assumption that comp are going to improve from where they've been in the last couple of quarters? And are you building any benefit into your outlook from digital if you could talk about that I'd appreciate it. Thanks.

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Hard to hear all of the question. But are we building any benefit from the digital? Yes, we will see some accelerations as you think about our same-restaurant sales and we start to bring to life digital, not only during the course of 2019, but what we've done in 2018. You'll start to see some of that helping us support our same-restaurant sales growth. And we've been really around a driving a app acquisition strategy with mobile offers and really trying to get folks into that first. And then as we work to bring to life mobile ordering support that with mobile payment and bring that whole architecture together we'll have an opportunity to really advertise and bring it to life to create a lot more awareness to continue to make sure we get a good return for that investment.

Brian Bittner -- Oppenheimer -- Analyst



Your next question comes from the line of John Glass with Morgan Stanley. Please go ahead.

John Glass -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Thanks very much. Todd, two questions on comps. One is when you look at going from of 4 for $4 construct to a $5 construct one, are you keeping the 4 for $4 or is it going replaced? Do you build in some traffic declines because of that? How do have confidence you can sort of raise the price on the bundle if you will and the value orientation in the market is still very strong? And what test results could you share just support that? And secondly, you mentioned speed of service as an opportunity. There is one magazine out there that tracks speed of service and the drive-thru and it would suggest Wendy's did slow down quite a bit in 2018. I don't know if that squares with what your data shows. But is there -- was there a decline in 2018 in speed of service, particularly the drive through and what are your initiatives to speed that up if that is the case?

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. So on the first one John 4 for $4 still playing a great role on our portfolio and is a nice driver of our business. I think we have an opportunity to continue to trade folks up to that $5 price point. And the good news is as we saw the $5 Giant JBC twice during the course of 2018, it was able to trade customers up from 4 for $4 to the $5 Giant JBC and we want both of those in our portfolio. So it's part of that laddered menu price architecture approach that we have and then also as we continue strong barbell and making sure we got a great premium messages as we just talked about.

On speed of service consistent with what the external reports are, we did slow down during the course of last year. And it is an opportunity and we've got work going on and off simplification within our restaurants. We've got a lot of training going on in the system as we speak around how do we position and support for throughput not only with the general managers with our multiunit operators. We're making sure that we've got tools out in the restaurants that are all updated to make sure we're tracking timing and measurement to really create a focus on that.

And then everything that we talked about with our consumer facing technology initiatives will also complement that because we really got to make it easy and comfortable for folks to order and get more orders back into the kitchen. So it is a focal point for us and we've got a lot of initiatives under way. I'm very confident with the leadership and our operations team that we're going to continue to improve speed of service as we go into this calendar year.

John Glass -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

And G.P. just one modeling question for you, how do we think about G&A beyond 2019 the comp reset and then you got this onetime expense. Can we think about 2020 excluding those sort of flattish or how do we now look at G&A in over a longer period of time at least through 2020?

Gunther Plosch -- Chief Financial Officer

John, we didn't give kind of the specific guidance on G&A. But the way to think about is first of all our G&A savings initiative is totally on track. We're definitely focused on enabling growth, right? That's number one priority for us. We want to be an efficient growth company. So the investment that we made in G&A in both digital and international is going to stay in the base. We are definitely committed to get to 1.5% of system sales. A little bit longer than previously communicated and again right, we don't want to be the lowest cost provider. We are currently in the second quarter in the peer group with the G&A that we have and we think that's the right spot for us to be an efficient growth company.

John Glass -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Okay. Thank you.


Your next question comes from the line of Jake Bartlett with SunTrust. Please go ahead.

Jake Bartlett -- SunTrust -- Analyst

Great. I had -- first just a quick clarification and then a couple of quick questions. On the clarification, Todd, are you saying that traffic has been positive or was positive in 2018? I think you talked about more people coming and I just want to clarify whether that's the case?

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yeah, Jake. So in the hamburger category, we are growing hamburger category traffic share. But if you look at Q4, our traffic was down slightly. And if you look at it on a full year, we were flat. So the hamburger category, it was growing a little bit softer than total QSR.

And to one of your earlier comments who's actually stealing a little bit of that share? Well, you're seeing it in the Mexican concepts and you're seeing it in a big chicken player and those are opportunities to make sure that we understand why they're stealing some of the share and we'll make sure that our calendar and our service experience really complements that we can continue to bring those customers back over into our brand.

Jake Bartlett -- SunTrust -- Analyst

Got it. And then on your promotions, you talked about the -- what you've run in the first quarter here, the $5 Giant JBC in the Made to Crave. It sounds like especially given your guidance, which I think implies about 1.5% to 2.5% same-store sales in 2019, but it sounds like that is proving effective.

And I'm also wondering whether you're seeing consumer's responding better to the more premium promotions. In the past few years they've largely fallen on deaf ears with consumers. I'm wondering whether you're encouraged by the results of the Made to Crave, for instance, and whether that's the indication that maybe we're seeing a shift in the promotional cadence out there or strategies out there?

And then lastly, if I look at your longer-term systemwide sales growth guidance, it implies I believe for 2020 about a 5% to 6% systemwide sales growth. And so I'm wondering just whether that -- really just reflects reacceleration of unit growth pretty maturely? Or you're baking in a continued tailwind from same-store sales?

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yeah, Jake. So, on the calendar, I'll start with really the adjustments that we made as we finished the quarter and the fourth quarter. We had bacon maple chicken sandwich on the premium side, which we felt good. It performed to our expectations. And we turned on the Giant JBC. And so you look at our two-year comps throughout the quarter, we did see an acceleration in December on our two-year comps.

So we feel good that that strategy was working to finish the year. I don't want to comment on where we are on the first quarter, but we're really feeling positive about the adjustments we've made in our calendar to continue to bring folks into our restaurants more often but also trade them up.

And it's really bringing to life the strategy that we've been talking about. What do we need to do to really bring folks to life with one more visit, smart dealing and innovations and really protecting and increase our traffic share growth. But also make sure that we are driving that one more dollar around premium core and our innovation messaging and it is that balance and we continue to evolve and get smarter with where the consumer and the competitive landscape is. So, feeling good about that.

I'll turn it over to G.P. and he'll talk a little about the systemwide sales.

Gunther Plosch -- Chief Financial Officer

Hey, Jack on 2020 system sales, your observation is right. There's a little bit of acceleration assumed between 2019 and 2020. What it's driven by? It's driven by definitely by SRS acceleration, a little bit since we are building hopefully digital momentum. The other assumption is clearly unit acceleration between 2019 and 2020, so that's the first two drivers and the third one don't forget in 2020 we have 53rd week, so that also helps us have slightly outsized growth.


Our next question will come from the line of Gregory Francfort with Bank of America. Please go ahead.

Gregory Francfort -- Bank of America -- Analyst

Hey, guys. I had two questions. One was just a follow-up to I think it was John's question on menu simplification. How do you measure that? Is it item count or SKU? And maybe where should that be?

And then my other question was just on the competitive landscape and value. We're seeing one of your large competitors. I know a lot of guys in QSR aren't disclosing check versus traffic. But one of your large competitors are disclosing that they've got check growth running 4% to 5% with negative traffic and you guys clearly have a strategy going the other way. What do you think that right balance will be on a go-forward basis between check and traffic? Or I don't know if you think about price mix and maybe where that balance should be?

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yeah. So on menu simplification, isn't just measuring the number of items in the restaurant, it's really where do we position our folks. What is the complexity as we bring new offerings into our restaurants, that's why we really like the Made to Crave lineup. They're premium hamburgers that are easy to build, so even now we had a little complexity as we changed the menu boards. They're great tasting premium sandwiches that we can build quickly and really support our throughput initiatives.

It is leveraging a lot of the training and the tools to make sure that we set up our people up for success. And we'll always look at the number of SKUs, do we have the right SKUs? But it really gets down to ease of build and ease of training for our employees in our restaurant and make sure that we still continue to create good variety for the consumer.

If you think about the landscape and value, if you go into -- we've really aired on the side of really bringing in traffic and we feel really good about starting from a strong spot, because we've been winning hamburger category traffic share and bringing folks into the restaurant.

So we look going into 2019. We want to evolve that a little bit and make sure we got a little more balance and that gives us the opportunity to drive mix. And you'll probably see during the course of this year where we may have some slight traffic declines and a little more in price and mix, but that's really a balance of lapping over where we've been the last couple of years in our base.

Gregory Francfort -- Bank of America -- Analyst

Thanks for the thought.


Your next question comes from the line of Matthew DiFrisco with Guggenheim Securities. Please go ahead.

Matthew DiFrisco -- Guggenheim Securities -- Analyst

Thank you. Sorry, if I missed this, but did you guys disclose how much delivery was in for the system? Or can you give us a ballpark estimate. I'm curious just comparatively, how that's grown, and maybe as a contributor to the comp. So year-over-year where that stands now?

Gunther Plosch -- Chief Financial Officer

Hi, Matt, we're really happy with the progress we are making on delivery. It's definitely exceeding our expectations. We have a coverage of about 60% by the end of 2018 and we expect to grow this to about 80% by 2019. So great, great progress. We're happy with check sizes 1.5 to twice the size of the regular check.

We have not disclosed in terms of how much really tailwind that generates for us from an SRS point of view. We are, obviously, watching it and we are also watching obviously customer satisfaction and value perception of the delivered orders. And in both instances, we are weighting actually very favorably in high.

Matthew DiFrisco -- Guggenheim Securities -- Analyst

Is it also though -- is there some offset with maybe a little bit pressure on the restaurant margin side within the expenses or the commission related with that?

Gunther Plosch -- Chief Financial Officer

Great question. Not in our case, the model that we have chosen with DoorDash is we are literally passing on all costs. So service fees and the delivery fees are passed on to the consumers and again that's the reason why we are watching customer satisfaction fairly closely and especially the value perception to make sure that we actually got that right in minds of the consumers.

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

And our opportunity really, Matt, is to continue to drive awareness. Awareness is still very low on delivery. It's still a small percentage of our business that's why you don't see a meaningful impact yet on comps. And we still have a lot to learn on the incrementality. But what we do know is our biggest competitor is food at home and providing more access and more reach to our brand, complementing our restaurants with delivery is a good proposition. We got to continue to look at the balance between the restaurant economic model and the consumer economic model. But we feel good right now and we have got a lot of support in our system to continue to drive the awareness in support of delivery.

Matthew DiFrisco -- Guggenheim Securities -- Analyst

Is there a correlation with the slowdown perhaps on the speed of service, the drivers, maybe the DoorDash driver going through the drive-thru? Is there a way to mitigate that or try and maybe test some windows dedicated for the DoorDash person?

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Clearly, there's always opportunities to get better and really figure out how we get that dasher through the restaurant a little more often. There's pockets of restaurants where that could have impacted speed a little bit. But, in general, no, it's spread out, hadn't had a meaningful impact, but we'll continue to look at how do we partner with DoorDash, how do we make sure that we make it easier for the dasher to get orders into our system to ultimately get them through our lines faster. And ultimately get food to the consumer faster which is what the ultimate goal is.

Matthew DiFrisco -- Guggenheim Securities -- Analyst

Excellent. Thank you.


Your next question comes from the line of Jeffrey Bernstein with Barclays. Please go ahead.

Jeffrey Bernstein -- Barclays -- Analyst

Great. Thank you very much. Two questions. One, Todd, just wondering if you can size up what you think franchise sentiment, it seems like it's been challenged across the quick-service industry of late. I know your comp returned modestly positive this quarter, but presumably profitability is under pressure. So, I'm just wondering some of franchises even maybe ladder implications for whether it's future unit growth or ongoing remodels. What kind of feel you're getting from the franchisees? And then I had one follow-up.

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes, Jeff we've talked about this in the past. We've got a strong and great relationship with our franchise community and we spent a lot of time partnering and talking with them.

We have our committee with Wendy's national advertising fund and we meet with them regularly on our promotional calendar and innovation calendar to make sure that we've got their support and buy-in. We work with our franchise advisory council on a regular basis to make sure that things we're putting into the restaurants really work and they're partnering with us to feel comfortable about this operationally. And we have our tech council, so as we bring technology to life in the restaurants.

So, we feel good that we've got open lines of communication. As you look at where they would be feeling from an economic perspective, we haven't accumulated all of their data from a profitability yet for 2018, but they would largely follow the company margin pressure.

But what I know about our system is any time we start to rally folks behind our great tasting food and really try to make sure that we get great tasting, fresh never frozen North American hamburgers into their stomach with items like Made to Crave, they're going to execute hard and those are opportunities to drive profit. But we know we still got a big pocket of consumer that's stretched and we got to make sure that Wendy's has them back, so that's why we need a balanced high-low calendar on a regular basis.

Jeffrey Bernstein -- Barclays -- Analyst

Understood. And then just on international, I know you mentioned that I guess you missed your goal for unit openings this year and I know you talked about kind of doing a full review of the international strategy. My guess is we'll get an update in October, but any kind of early read on the review of the strategy? Whether it's fewer or higher volume units? Or you're still thinking about the 10 core markets and kind of accelerating that unit growth meaningfully in 2019 and 2020? Any thoughts around that would be great.

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. So, let me give you a few thoughts just Jeff and I don't want steal a lot of thunder. We still got work under way and Abigail talked a lot about it in October. As we think about 2018, we did have a couple of markets under transition in the new franchisees, but we're really encouraged that we got great partners coming into those markets.

On a couple of different thoughts, we talked on the prepared remarks that we will think differently across the globe to accelerate growth. And Abigail take on leadership of that business, we're going to utilize a ton of the tools that we had from the North American playbook.

When you think about incentive structures, new restaurant design solutions, the franchise recruiting, even system optimization, there's a great opportunity to build a stronger foundation during 2019 to set ourselves up for accelerated growth and we're going to relook at the profile of the ideal franchises and the structures.

So, we'll look at things like master franchising and do we want to bring some private equity in to help us internationally? Where do we want to go on joint ventures? So, we're going to look at the full toolbox, but we'll really let Abigail bring that to life in October. But as a reminder, we really still believe in an asset-light model internationally and that will be our focus.

Jeffrey Bernstein -- Barclays -- Analyst

Thank you.


Your next question comes from the line of Alton Stump with Longbow Research. Please go ahead.

Alton Stump -- Longbow Research -- Analyst

I think -- and -- good morning, thanks for taking my question. I guess I just wanted to ask if going back to the competitive environment and as it pertains to speed of service. How much of an impact -- I'm sure it's quite hard to splice up, but how much of an impact do you think that had on your comp performance over the course of 2018?

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. Now if you look at speed of service, clearly, there's a correlation to taking down speed of service in driving sales. I won't put that number out there just we know internally. But when you think about our busiest day parts at lunch, we all see it.

If you go to a restaurant with a long line, you're going to pass that long line and head somewhere else. So, our opportunity is how do we make sure that that those lines move fast. How do those lines move consistent day-in and day-out, so we can earn the trust of that consumer who wants to come back and really drive a little more frequency to our restaurants? So, we're in that rotation on a regular basis.

And we know that speed matters in the spirit of the overall customer experience. It's one of the elements that we measure in our overall satisfaction and we're not in a bad spot to start. We still are up there in the top of speed with the relative peer groups but we know we have an opportunity to do even better and that's why we're putting the tools and training in place as we speak to really enhance that experience.

Alton Stump -- Longbow Research -- Analyst

Great, that's helpful. Thanks Todd. And just one quick question if I could and I'll hop back in the queue. Kind of getting back to franchisee and kind of what they are thinking at the moment. Has there been any impact first comp sold over the last couple of quarters as far as their desire whether it's Image Activation and/or developmental stores or are they not that concerned about what's happened in the last six months.

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Well, you always got to look at where we are from a profitability perspective with their franchise community because we know the common threat across the whole system is the restaurant economic model. And if it's working for them, it's going to be working for the company and that's why we're going at great lengths to continue to drive strong sales growth and profitable sales growth for the system.

With the challenging back half of the year from a topline perspective and a little bit of pressure on margin, I don't see that having an impact on our business. We're continuing to reimage our business. In North America, we got a great pipeline on North American new development into 2019 even into 2020.

The groundbreaker incentive has been really well received, so we're signing up incremental new development agreements along the way. And we're helping to support them on the technology front with announcements we make today.

So, it is a good balance. All of those tools are growth tools, right? And if you look at our growth opportunities into the near-term, we're excited about them. We got mixed opportunities behind our one more visit one more dollar, right?

We've got an even more consistent service experience that we can create in our restaurants to bring folks in more often. And we know digital will play a role in driving frequency, loyalty, throughput, and check. And then over time we've still got IA as a tailwind right? We only got 50% of the system reimage so that will continue to help us and we know we're still underutilized in a certain day parts, afternoon day-part, late-night day-part. And then ultimately how do we bring international to life. So, there's still a lot of great growth opportunities in front of us as the Wendy's brand.

Alton Stump -- Longbow Research -- Analyst

Great. Thanks, Todd.


Your next question comes from the line of Jeff Farmer with Gordon Haskett. Please go ahead.

Jeffrey Farmer -- Gordon Haskett -- Analyst

Thank you. Just a question and a quick follow-up. On the question, what type of consumer responses you guys see with $1 any size fries promotion? And what drove that decision to extend out promotion?

Gunther Plosch -- Chief Financial Officer

Hey, Jeff, we, obviously, tested the $1 any size promotion. It passed all our criteria from a consumer point of view, operations point of view and finance point of view. We saw traffic, but traffic was basically not enough to totally overcome and make this promotion totally profitable. So that was the challenge we had with it and was probably a function of the competitive environment it was operating in. It was probably also one of the main drivers why we slightly missed our restaurant margin guidance for the year.

Jeffrey Farmer -- Gordon Haskett -- Analyst

That's helpful. And then sticking with you GP, just touching on the components of the expected bridge from the -- I think it's $230 million to $240 million of free cash in 2019 to that $275 million in 2020. Again I acknowledge that you touched on it, but can you provide us any color, a little bit more granular color as to the components or the bridge to that number, that $275 million number in 2020?

Gunther Plosch -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes. Really two main drivers, right? First of all, high single-digit earnings growth, right? So don't forget, we're going to left the onetime investment on the scanner side, so that we will give very high core earnings growth. And then we are planning for a good reduction in our capital expenditures down to about $65 million, the combination of those two are the main drivers, as third small driver there, the working capital initiative that we are starting this year is going to blithe slightly into 2020 as well so the combination of those three give us confidence to hit that $275 million level.

Jeffrey Farmer -- Gordon Haskett -- Analyst

All right. Thank you.


Your next question comes from the line of Sara Senatore with Bernstein. Please go ahead.

Sara Senatore -- Bernstein -- Analyst

Thank you. I have two follow-up questions please on some of the topics already addressed. First is on just digital and your thoughts with that should help accelerate comps. I guess when we look across the industry, it's not always evident that digital investment's translate into same-store sales or at least not to the extent that they offset any of the other headwinds. So, I guess, is there any reason to think that you might have a different experience in some of the other peers that seem to be investing but largely just as table steak now as opposed to a comp driver?

And then my question -- my other question is on your restaurant level margins and franchisee profitability that you addressed. Our sense is that franchisee margins may actually be a little bit better than company-operated margins at this point and I was wondering if that's true, is that related to them taking more price. Is there any sort of price traffic trade off where their margins look better but, obviously, the systemwide comps on the stack basis turn a little bit softer? So just trying to understand maybe how to interpret franchisee profitability in the context of what the company stores are doing? Thanks.

Todd A. Penegor -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes, Sara, I'll start with digital and turn it over to GP on restaurant margins. But if you think about where Wendy stands in the digital arena, our operating model complements technology as well


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