With more than 7,000 locations worldwide, and a brand that's as familiar to Americans as baseball, Burger King Worldwide (NYSE:BKW.DL) is a stranger to no one. While all of us definitely "know" this company, does it make for a good investment? Will its fourth-quarter earnings surprise the slow-growing fast-food industry, like Wendy's (NASDAQ:WEN) did, or will it merely keep a sluggish pace with McDonald's (NYSE:MCD)

Burger King reports earnings this Thursday. Here are three things to watch.

Comparing Burger King's revenues to its peers'
Too often we have a tendency to compare fast-food stocks to rapidly growing fast-casual chains, such as Chipotle, rather than to one another. While this does, perhaps, make for an interesting case study on industry disruption, it does little to evaluate the investment merits of these stocks. 

So here's how Burger King stacks up to its peers on the one thing that the industry is lacking: sales growth:

  1. Wendy's most recent quarter showed strong total sales growth. It raised guidance, as company-owned comps were up 3.1%, and total same-store sales rose 1.9%
  2. McDonald's fourth quarter showed essentially flat comparable sales, but total sales grew 2% for the year. 
  3. Burger King's most recent quarter showed comparable-sales growth of 0.9%, but systemwide sales increased 4.9% as restaurant count grew by 133 units. 

Here's my view on this. Wendy's deserves credit for rebranding its stores in a cleaner, sleeker image, and its comps look strong. Yet Burger King doesn't need to be a hot "same-store" sales play, it just needs to avoid declines.

I view the total sales growth as a positive compared to both Wendy's and McDonald's. 

For this quarter, watch for same-store sales to remain flat or positive, and systemwide sales to grow more than 2%; anything less could signal losses in market share. 

Dividend dynamo?
One thing that sets Burger King apart from its peers is its paltry dividend. Wendy's pays out a 2.2% yield, and McDonald's a robust 3.4% yield, while Burger King barely crosses 1%.

Now, one could argue that both Wendy's and McDonald's should be using their capital for new product innovation, or perhaps some brand and messaging control, and that is a good argument. Still, Burger King's payout ratio is below 30% of this year's projected earnings. In a slow-growing industry like this, it probably could increase its payout a bit.

Management increased the dividend, from $0.06 to $0.07, last quarter, and I wouldn't be surprised to see another increase. 

A clear idea of where the dividend is going is another key thing to look for this quarter.

Where is the growth coming from? 
Last quarter, Burger King saw its comparable-store growth rise in non-North America locations (North America actually showed a decline), and attributed much of its growth to its new, lower-fat Satisfries.

For a while Burger King seemed to just be copying McDonald's menu options (such as "frappes" and salads); the Satisfries and sweet potato fries were a nice change that showed this company could innovate a bit. 

On this earnings call I'll be listening for two things regarding growth. First, are these products still being received well, and what's next in terms of innovation? Second, is the North American market stabilizing, or is all of the growth still coming overseas?

While growth is important, knowing where it's coming from will help us determine if it's sustainable.

Foolish thought: Reasonable expectations
Burger King is not an upstart chain, and it is not going to wow us with huge comparable-sales growth. That doesn't mean that this quarterly report can't tell us a whole lot. In a slower-growth industry like fast food, menu innovation and market share gains are key.

The three key things above will tell you if Burger King is headed in the right direction.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.