I didn't win any fans at Del Monte Foods (NYSE:DLM) when I recently referred to the company as Dull Monte.

This is the exciting company that guided investors to look for 2% to 3% revenue growth for fiscal 2005 (ending in April). Well, Gomer Pyle fans, "Surprise! Surprise!" The company just announced third-quarter results, and sales shot up 6.2%. Be still, my heart.

But while sales (relatively) boomed, net income took a back seat -- falling 6.9% if you strip out items related to discontinued operations. The culprits were cost increases in steel -- remember, this is a can-based business -- as well as in energy and fish. I knew I smelled something funny!

In the words of the CEO: "We also continued to make the strategic investments in our brands and new product introductions that we believe will position our Company for growth over the longer term." Ar, matey, there be a heavy word fog over these waters. In plain English, the company's spending money. But when the company mentions "growth," investors have to be wondering: Is it hoping for more sales or more of the declining earnings it's been experiencing?

Are you ready to get excited? Oops, sorry, wrong company. The fourth quarter will see 1% to 3% revenue growth and flat to declining earnings per diluted share. Yikes! That's hardly going to wake this company up from what seems like a long sleep.

To be fair, the company has refinanced its debt and taken an earnings hit in 2005. Analysts expect earnings to recover to $0.91 a share for the fiscal year that ends in April 2006. Is the stock cheap at 12.4 times forward earnings? You decide. The company as a whole, in the form of enterprise value, sells for 5.2 times trailing 12-month earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. Del Monte may be dull, but it's a cash cow, and once the big debt load is removed or margins improve (or both), this company will be anything but dull in my book.

The company's strategy was to bulk up on debt to acquire slow-growth brands from H.J. Heinz (NYSE:HNZ) and to bring innovation and growth to those brands. If revenue growth is the only consideration, this strategy looks to be working. And although earnings have declined, Del Monte's trailing 12-month free cash flow of $196 million -- almost twice a year's earnings -- shows that the company is not in dire financial straits. Del Monte is a work in progress that has yet to show hoped-for earnings growth, although I wouldn't rule out the possibility of things coming around in the future.

Interested in food-industry investment alternatives? Why not savor the high yields at either of two Motley Fool Income Investor selections: Heinz or the restructuring Sara Lee (NYSE:SLE)? For a faster growth story, there's Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation Fresh Del Monte Produce (NYSE:FDP). No longer a part of regular Del Monte -- although the two share the same logo -- it's trying to energize its growth by selling fresh fruit to fast food queen Wendy's (NYSE:WEN).

Fool contributor W.D. Crotty does not own stock in the any of the companies mentioned. He was, though, an employee of Star-Kist, a Del Monte company, many moons ago. Click here to see The Motley Fool's disclosure policy.