Few companies can boast the iconic stature that Starbucks (SBUX -1.39%) has achieved. The coffee giant revolutionized the coffeehouse industry in the U.S., and along the way, Starbucks has expanded its reach across the globe and has made its presence almost ubiquitous domestically. Yet as investors prepare for Starbucks' fiscal first-quarter results on Thursday, some worry that the company might start to have difficulty sustaining its past growth rates indefinitely. Let's take an early look at what Starbucks has been up to lately and whether its future still looks bright.

Starbucks Reserve Roastery. Image source: Starbucks.

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Data source: Yahoo! Finance.

How will Starbucks earnings fare?

Investors have reined in their expectations about Starbucks earnings somewhat over the past few months. They've cut their views on first-quarter earnings by about 5%, and they've made small reductions to their outlooks for fiscal 2017 and 2018. Yet the stock has performed well, climbing 12% since mid-October.

A substantial portion of those gains came after Starbucks released its fiscal fourth-quarter and full-year results in early November. The company said that sales rose 16% for the quarter, driving a more than 25% increase in earnings per share. Operating margins improved by nearly two full percentage points, and the coffee giant said it opened 690 new stores during the quarter. Comparable sales rose 4% globally, with a 5% rise in the Americas and a 6% jump in China, which has become increasingly important for Starbucks' overall growth prospects. Despite some declines in traffic, Starbucks explained that customers changed their behavior by combining orders rather than splitting them up, and that partially accounted for the decline.

Yet the biggest news in the quarter came in December, when CEO Howard Schultz said that he would once again leave the chief executive's seat. Current president and COO Kevin Johnson will take over the CEO role as of April 3, pushing Schultz into the role of executive chairman of the board. Some investors remembered with anxiety the last time Schultz vacated the CEO spot, which took place in 2000 just as the overall stock market was entering a bear-market period. Yet Schultz will stay with the company, shifting his job to look at innovation and the development of the Starbucks Reserve high-end store concept and brand. In the end, freeing up Schultz to spend more time on a new direction for Starbucks could be the best way to generate long-term future growth beyond the success of its current store base.

Meanwhile, China will remain a focal point in the minds of many Starbucks investors. The company has opened about 1,000 locations in China over the past year, and it expects to double its existing count of roughly 2,500 stores in the next four years. With a growing middle class that will have an appetite for small luxuries, Starbucks hopes to fill a niche that it has had great success filling in the U.S. market. Moreover, the fact that China has such a dramatically larger population overall than the U.S. makes the nation's market potential even greater. With Starbucks already having a key market share advantage within China, the first mover has an opportunity to step up its game and build a model for success that could work in other rising emerging market nations elsewhere in the world.

In the Starbucks earnings report, the key question will be whether the coffee giant is able to keep up the momentum it generated in its November quarterly report and build on it going forward. In addition, seeing more of Johnson's vision for the company will be crucial to raise confidence in his ability to step into Schultz's shoes and carry Starbucks forward into a faster-growth future.