* Walmex motivated by interest from potential buyers
* Sale could raise $600 mln to $700 mln, analyst says
MEXICO CITY, June 14 (Reuters) - Wal-Mart de Mexico , Mexico’s largest retailer, surprised analysts on Friday by saying it may sell its restaurant unit, including the popular Vips chain, after receiving interest from potential buyers.
Walmex, which is controlled by Wal-Mart Stores Inc, has reported weak same-store sales recently, but is not in need of cash, analysts said.
“Part of the reason is that there have been third parties in the past who have expressed interest (in the restaurants),” Walmex spokesman Antonio Ocaranza told a local radio station.
“As a responsible company, we should respond to what may be of interest to our shareholders,” he added.
The group of 364 restaurants, which accounts for only a fraction of Walmex’s profits, may fetch between $600 million and $700 million, estimated one analyst who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
“A lot of companies are going to be really interested in this asset,” the analyst said.
The restaurant group is mostly made up of the 265-strong Vips chain, which sells Mexican breakfasts and dinners as well as hotcakes and cheeseburgers in a format similar to a U.S. diner.
The division also includes 92 El Porton restaurants that sell Mexican food and seven Ragazzi restaurants, specializing in Italian food.
Walmex’s restaurants compete with Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim’s Sanborns restaurant and retail chain, which raised almost $1 billion when it went public earlier this year.
Analysts said Alsea, which operates Burger King as well as more upscale restaurants such as PF Chang’s in Mexico, might be interested in Vips. Another possible suitor may be Coca-Cola bottler and retailer Femsa, which has recently said it is interested in expanding into fast-food, the analysts said.
Officials at Sanborns, Alsea and Femsa did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Walmex said in a statement that the proposed sale was at an early stage and that there was no guarantee that it would reach a deal.
Last year, the restaurant division accounted for just 1.7 percent of Walmex’s revenue and 1.6 percent of its earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, the company said.
Vips and the other restaurants serve 79 million customers annually via its 364 restaurants, the company said. But between 2011 and 2012, the company opened just two new restaurants, according to Walmex’s 2012 annual report.
Walmex in February forecast capital spending of $1.4 billion for this year, but in a break with tradition would not say how many stores it would open.
Earlier this month, Walmex said its same-store sales fell 2.4 percent in May, their second successive monthly decline.
U.S. and Mexican authorities are investigating the company over allegations that it bribed Mexican officials to speed up store openings.
Walmex shares were down 0.4 percent at 36.15 pesos in morning trading. The stock has fallen more than 14 percent this year.
Besides restaurants and supermarkets, Walmex operates the Suburbia clothing chain and a consumer bank in Mexico.