There may be no ham in hamburger, but that doesn't mean there's no need to check on Checkers (NASDAQ:CHKR). Besides, after the company's appetizing 2003 and with interesting trends underway in fast food, why not sink your teeth into the company's latest quarterly report?

Watching earnings fall from $0.25 a share last year to only $0.19 a share for the March quarter may be disheartening. However, this time last year, the company was still eating through its tax loss carryforwards, which makes comparisons difficult. Now the company is consistently profitable and reported earnings would have been a more compelling $0.31 a share if Uncle Sam were still looking the other way.

But we all know he doesn't do that.

Comps, an important measure when gauging popularity and pricing flexibility, rose a healthy 8% at company-owned locations (nearly 6% at franchised units). The pressing question is whether the company's recent improvement is enough to kickstart the franchising process. Over the past two years, the total number of Checkers and Rally's burger sites has actually slipped from 795 locations to 787.

There was a time when a franchise may have been a tough sell, but improvements in the sector should give the company the strength to grow again. Checkers shares have doubled over the past year, and burger flipping rivals like Sonic (NASDAQ:SONC), McDonald's (NYSE:MCD), and Wendy's (NYSE:WEN) have all been pillars of performance.

Earlier this week, the industry was rocked by the death of McDonald's CEO Jim Cantalupo. While fans of the Golden Arches were right to mourn the passing of a corporate leader who helped spearhead the chain's revival, Checkers also owes Cantalupo. It was his move to back away from the dollar pricing wars and start promoting premium salads and higher-quality full-priced fare that helped small box concepts like Checkers reclaim the penny-pinching hungry.

That's a legacy worth savoring for burger players big and small. It's a dark week in the industry, but the future hasn't been this bright in years.

Do you think Mickey D's will survive the passing of Cantalupo? Will the bargain-priced drive-through restaurants roll out their own premium eats? What's a Grimace and a Hamburglar anyway? All this and more -- in the McDonald's discussion board. Only on

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has been covering restaurant stocks here since 1995. He reckons he's put on a few pounds just writing about these companies. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story.