CKE Restaurants (NYSE:CKR), owner of fast-food outlets Hardee's and Carl's Jr., is the New York Stock Exchange's largest percentage loser today, with a 13% decline, on what appears to be good news.

After years of disappointing performance, CKE Restaurants has put together 15 consecutive four-week periods of increased same-store sales at both restaurant chains. In the latest period, Carl's Jr. revenue jumped an impressive 9.3%, and Hardee's booked a respectable 4.9% increase. High gas prices are not keeping consumers away.

Fueling part of the Carl's Jr. rise is its Loaded Breakfast Burrito. Is a record quarter on the way?

One clue is today's earnings announcement. Earnings of $0.17 a share in the second quarter fell short of analyst estimates by three cents. Because the company earned $0.20 in the previous quarter -- a quarter without the lucrative "summer season" -- it is obvious that operating margins are falling.

You do not need to get too fancy with today's data to understand the stock's fall. Top-tier fast-food operators such as McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) and Wendy's (NYSE:WEN) are having a good year and sell for 15 times 2004 estimated earnings. Second-tier operators such as Checkers (NASDAQ:CHKR) and Jack in the Box (NYSE:JBX) trade for just 13 times earnings -- and they are having good years too.

Even after today's fall, CKE Restaurants is trading at 16 times 2004 estimated earnings. Do premium-priced burgers, and a hot "loaded burrito," deserve a premium stock price? Not really, even though it is clear from today's same-store sales numbers that third-quarter sales are off to a fast start (and faster than that of peers).

CKE Restaurants is filling a unique product niche and doing well. Today's fall still leaves the stock selling for a premium to its peers, which does not bode well for near-term share price appreciation.

For more fast food for thought:

Fool contributor W.D. Crotty does own stock in Checkers -- which will probably chide him for calling it second-tier.

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