* Q4 EPS $0.04 before items vs est -$0.02/shr
* Rev $99.8 mln vs est $101.4 mln
* Sees no co-owned restaurant openings in 2009
* Sees '09 same-store sales down in low double-digit range
* Shares rise almost 15 percent (Adds details from conference call, share movement)
BANGALORE, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Ruth's Hospitality Group Inc (RUTH.O) posted a surprise quarterly profit, helped by favorable beef costs and a reduction in operating expenses, sending its shares up almost 15 percent.
However, on a conference call with analysts finance chief Robert Vincent warned that the first half of 2009 would be "very challenging" and forecast a decline in same-store sales for the year in the low double-digit range.
The operator of upscale steakhouses said it expects to be profitable in 2009 even if same-store sales drop by 10 percent to 12 percent.
"The economic uncertainty is a great obstacle in projecting sales levels with any confidence and therefore we are not in a position to offer definitive earnings guidance," Vincent said.
Ruth's expects 2009 free cash flow of $12 million to $14 million and capital expenses of $10 million to $12 million.
The ceiling on capital expenditure is $12 million for the year, according to terms of an amended credit agreement.
The company on Thursday said it had amended its credit agreement which reduced loan commitment to $175 million from $250 million. [ID:nWNAB7845]
It had 160.3 million in long term-debt as of Dec. 28, 2008, which is $6.6 million below its third-quarter debt levels.
The company, which operates more than 150 restaurants, said it currently has 5 restaurants that are cash flow negative. Ruth's will not open any company-owned stores in 2009 while its franchises plan to open 3 to 5 stores.
SURPRISE Q4 PROFIT
The company earned 4 cents a share, excluding restructuring charges, severance costs and discontinued operation expenses. Analysts were expecting a loss of 2 cents a share, before items, according to Reuters Estimate.
Ruth's posted fourth-quarter loss of $60.7 million, or $2.60 a share, including the items, compared with a profit of $4.1 million, or 18 cents a share, a year ago.
Company owned same-store sales fell 18.5 percent at Ruth's Chris Steak House.
Revenue rose 12.1 percent to $99.8 million, including $19.4 million from the acquisition of Mitchell's which closed in Feb. 2008.
Ruth's said sales in the first eight weeks of the first quarter improved slightly over the fourth quarter.
Shares of the company were up 11 cents at $1.06 in morning trade on Nasdaq. They touched a high of $1.09 earlier.
For alerts, please click [ID:nWNAB8058] [ID:nWNAB8319] (Reporting by Shivani Singh in Bangalore; Editing by Amitha Rajan, Himani Sarkar)