(Adds closing share price)
By Meredith Mazzilli
NEW YORK, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Blue Apron Holdings Inc said on Tuesday it could break even on a key measure of profitability earlier than Wall Street analysts had expected, fueling a brief surge in the meal-kit maker's shares.
Chief Executive Brad Dickerson said adjusted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization could turn positive as soon as the fourth quarter, as Blue Apron boosts revenue while cutting capital spending and administrative costs.
That would be a major milestone for the company which has not turned an annual profit by any measure since being founded in 2012 and has not moved closer since its high-profile initial public offering in June last year.
Blue Apron pioneered the meal-kit market, selling subscriptions for pre-portioned ingredients paired with recipes for restaurant-style meals like tilapia piccata and miso-glazed barramundi, but has faced a rash of new competitors including Amazon.com Inc.
Blue Apron has spent heavily on moving one of three distribution hubs to a bigger, more automated facility, but that came at the cost of marketing efforts, meaning it focused on squeezing more revenue from its user base rather than attracting new customers.
With the distribution switchover completed, Blue Apron now plans to ramp up marketing again to battle for new meal-kit customers in the hope of boosting revenue.
"That breakeven EBITDA in '19 assumes that we would continue to improve margins going forward," Dickerson said on a conference call with analysts. "The second thing it does assume is that we do return to some kind of full-year growth in revenue top line year-over-year."
Blue Apron shares surged as much as 25 percent in morning trading to $4.20, but fell back to close unchanged. They are well below their June 2017 IPO price of $10.
Analysts on average expected the company to post negative quarterly EBITDA through at least the end of 2018, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Blue Apron forecast first-quarter revenue of $190 million to $200 million, below analysts' average estimate of $220 million, although the company has in the past been conservative with its revenue estimates.
For the fourth quarter, Blue Apron reported a smaller drop in sales than expected and a tick up in average revenue per customer, which it attributed to a more varied menu and meals with shorter prep times. Total orders and customers fell.
Average revenue per customer rose to $248 from $245 in the third quarter and $246 a year earlier. Revenue was $187.7 million, down 13 percent but exceeding analyst estimates for $185.1 million.
Blue Apron had a net loss of 20 cents a share, beating analysts' average estimate for a wider net loss of 27 cents per share.
Costs as a percentage of revenue improved from the third quarter, thanks to better recipe planning at its new hub in Linden, New Jersey, and seasonal benefits like cheaper packaging and fewer seasonal food items.
Blue Apron said it was launching a new national brand campaign in the final week of December, which it credited to the improvements at Linden.
It was the company's first earnings report under Dickerson, who became CEO after co-founder Matt Salzberg stepped down in November. Dickerson joined as chief financial officer in February 2016 from apparel maker Under Armour Inc.
Amazon unveiled a deal to buy Whole Foods just as Blue Apron was preparing to go public, gaining what many saw as a food distribution network in the grocery chain.
Amazon has also been selling its own kits, with its website listing meals like tacos al pastor for two, but customers need to pay for an AmazonFresh add-on to Prime membership that is only available in select cities to order. (Reporting by Meredith Mazzilli; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Bill Rigby)