It's been a decent year for Papa John's (NASDAQ:PZZA) stockholders. Shares are up 50% over the last 12 months and, as Fool colleague Rick Aristotle Munarriz pointed out, the company put up some pretty impressive comps recently. But there are a few surprises bubbling under that delicious cheesy surface that give shareholders something to ponder.

First of all, fourth-quarter revenues rose an anemic 1.2% over the same period last year, while earnings sank 22% to $0.46 per share. The numbers were uglier for 2003 as a whole. Revenues fell 3% to $917.4 million and earnings dropped 19.5% to $1.86 per share, including a $0.02 charge.

The company attributed this less-than-stellar performance to competition. Poor excuse. Sure, it can't be easy to wrestle for the nation's food dollar against the likes of Yum! Brands' (NYSE:YUM) Pizza Hut, or fast food juggernauts like McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) and Wendy's (NYSE:WEN), but hey, that's management's job. And to judge by good recent results from these rivals, Papa's not pulling his weight.

No, the sky's not falling. Over the past year, the firm has done a good job reducing debt while hanging onto a large pile of cash. In fact, if I held the stock, I'd raise an eyebrow toward what they're doing with that cash: expanding the share buyback program.

Sure, these purchases can benefit shareholders by giving them a larger slice of the earnings pie and sending the stock price upward, but when shares are purchased near the 52-week high, and the company pays no dividend at all, it's tougher to make the argument that this is the best use of the firm's spare cash.

Call me a skeptic, but I tend to follow our old pal Benjamin Graham in viewing ill-timed repurchases as a way of fattening management's wallet, especially when Papa John's execs have been exercising options in the low $20s and selling shares at the current, higher levels. A quarter of a million bucks here, $3 million there. It adds up to some serious green for insiders. The guys inside ought to consider sharing that money with the firm's owners -- the stockholders.

Tom Gardner has had a different opinion of Papa John's, and added the company to his Motley Fool Hidden Gems' Watch List in the September 2003 issue. Want to see what else Tom has his eye on? Take a free 30-day trial today.

Fool Contributor Seth Jayson has been getting uppity lately after rereading Graham's Intelligent Investor. He owns no stake in any company mentioned above.