Thinking outside the bun is still working for Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM). The owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC reported that same-store sales in November were up 2% in company-owned U.S. restaurants. Better yet was the 10% increase (or 19% after conversion to U.S. dollars) in international sales for the four weeks ending Nov. 19. The company forecasts earnings for 2003 of $2.03 a share, an 11.5% increase. For the next three years, the company expects earnings to increase 10% annually.

As savory as annual earnings gains sound, however, ordering up some Yum! stock does have its drawbacks. The heartburn starts with paying 17 times earnings for a company that is growing earnings at 10% a year. Why not seek out Jack in the Box (NYSE:JBX), which is selling for 10 times earnings and forecasting annual 10% earnings growth?

Indigestion sets in when you consider that the company's same-store sales growth is expected to remain at 2% for 2004. With Wendy's (NYSE:WEN) reporting sales up 9.4%, and McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) delivering 10% sales growth, maybe having buns makes sense (and cents).

You might choke when you see the $2.1 billion in debt, though that's down from the $5 billion Yum! owed when it was spun off by PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP) in 1997. The company has the free cash flow to continue paying down its debt and expanding its business.

What could Yum! do to spice up earnings?

Multibranding -- i.e., having two or more restaurant concepts under one roof -- makes sense. The May 2002 acquisition of A&W All American Foods put hamburgers and hot dogs on Yum!'s menu, which might provide the variety required to get groups (such as a mom and two kids) into a Yum! restaurant.

Outside the U.S., sales are soaring. KFC is the No. 1 brand name in China. Yum! has the brands, the growth opportunities, and the cash flow to aggressively fund international expansion -- and drive earnings higher.

Yum! Brands is pricey at $34.78, and is trading close to its 52-week high. Purchase of the shares now only makes sense if you think the company can accelerate its earnings growth.

Where's the beef in fast-food restaurant stocks right now? Serve your opinion on the Yum! Brands discussion board.

W.D. Crotty worked in the Taco Bell corporate offices in 1966. His favorite item was the Bell Burger -- taco meat served with lettuce and cheese on a warm bun. You can e-mail W.D. at W.D. owns stock in Yum!, McDonald's, and PepsiCo. I bet he is hungry right now!