Fourth-quarter figures for rejuvenated restaurateur Ruby Tuesday (NYSE:RI) were about as thick and juicy as its new burger-centric menu. For the period, the top and bottom lines grew 23.3% and 22.1%, respectively. The performance led my colleague Jim Mueller to conclude that if it can maintain control of margins while continuing to differentiate itself from the casual dining pack, Ruby Tuesday may still be a tasty treat for investors.

There's no question that Ruby Tuesday's efforts over the past year to liven up its product is paying dividends -- literally. The restaurant chain recently announced a hike of its payout to 2% at current prices. With Applebee's (NASDAQ:APPB), O'Charley's (NASDAQ:CHUX), Texas Roadhouse (NASDAQ:TXRH), and a host of others out there serving up their own burger varieties, it is not hard to see why differentiation becomes so important.

Can Ruby Tuesday maintain its freshness in the months ahead? There's no better place to look for clues than its latest quarterly earnings conference call. Joining me in this investigation are bullish-minded Bodhi Zappa and longtime bear Hank Schofield.

Can jumbo lump crab cakes lead to jumbo-sized sales?
Jeremy: Hank, new menu items have been the key in driving customer traffic. What does Ruby Tuesday have in store in the coming months to keep its freshness?

Hank: A renewed emphasis on bigger, better burgers is what really got the company's engine revving again. Management is keeping its foot on the pedal by juicing up its summer menu, set for release next week. Some of the new items customers will bite into are a typhoon shrimp platter, jumbo lump crab cake, and an upgrade to its salad bar. And the most mouthwatering of all for this meat-lovin' Texan? A triple prime burger. Now that's what I call a hog-killin' time.

Jeremy: Uh, a what-killin' time? So you're sold on its differentiation efforts to drive customer traffic?

Hank: Don't go crazy on me -- I'm a bear, which means I don't buy the bull.

Bodhi: Shocking.

Hank: Well, CEO Sandy Beall said it himself, "We finished out 2006 solid. Fiscal 2007 has started a little slow." CFO Margie Duffy indicated that comparable same-store sales for the first quarter of fiscal 2007 are projected to end up flat to down 2%. Through the month of June, comps are down roughly 1% with cost per transaction up 1% that is offset by a 2 to 2.5% decline in customer traffic. Beall admitted that at this point, the company is not sure what is causing the softness but that it appears to be industrywide.

Bodhi: OK, hold up. Let me dial in for a second. Beall also said these are short-term pressures within a six-month range and added, "We don't believe that the current environment is indicative of changing any of our long-term plans or goals or business models."

Hank: Beall might change his tune with oil prices hitting a record level . again.

Bodhi: And he might not. I think you are overlooking some important things. Comps began picking up in the second half of June, and with a new summer menu set to hit its restaurants next week, it's a good bet the positive momentum will continue.

And here's the really good news. Management believes it can add 1% to comps over the next year just by focusing in on its curbside business, and it can tack on another 1% to 2% by revamping its beverage selection with local handcrafted beers and "adding a little more premium wine selection." These are a few reasons why he remains comfortable with the projection that comps will normalize in the second half of the year with growth of 2% to 4%.

I just saved $750,000 by switching to Gei . err, I mean, on chicken fingers
Jeremy: Ruby Tuesday certainly has a lot of initiatives on tap. Will these changes add to its cost structure?

Bodhi: One analyst queried management on the same topic, as he was trying to add up the company's projection of flat food costs with an upgrade in the quality of its products. Beall's response is one reason why I am excited about this management team asserting that "the most important piece of quality is the freshness. Freshness is a management issue, but it's not really a cost issue. You're getting a higher quality -- it's less convenient, it requires more management work -- but it doesn't cost us a whole lot of money."

Jeremy: When pressed further on the topic and whether the switch to fresh beef would cost more per ounce, he indicated that costs would be a little more but not "burdensome." He followed that up by noting, "At the same time, we just saved $750,000 this morning on chicken fingers."

We all got a chuckle out of that one.

Hank: Hold your horses. These new measures may not show up in the form of higher food costs, but that doesn't mean they're free. For fiscal 2007, management is calling for restaurant margins to be lower year over year as it invests in the labor line. A culinary-manager program and a bar-manager program are a couple of the areas that it is spending more money on to help make its freshness goals a reality.

Ruby's shiny future
Jeremy: Enough cannot be said about the importance of quality management. It wasn't all that long ago when I threw a few jabs at the company for its lack of differentiation. Someone was listening. Someone listened and responded, and the results speak for themselves.

The company hopes to continue distinguishing itself from the pack by introducing more fresh ingredients and adding premium beverages. These changes add little in the way of cost to its food line items. But, as Hank so eagerly pointed out, the company is investing in the labor line to bring on employees who can make the most of the improved ingredients and beverages.

Even with these investments and short-term sales pressures, management is still holding to its long-term earnings growth projection of 12.5% to 15% a year. Sustainable double-digit growth to go along with a healthy dividend makes Ruby Tuesday worthy of further investigation.

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Fool contributor Jeremy MacNealy has no financial interest in any company mentioned.