(Reuters) - Dunkin' Brands Group Inc (DNKN.O) reported higher-than-expected quarterly earnings on strong U.S. results and lower taxes, but its shares fell 2.5 percent on disappointment with its margin growth and profit forecast.
Shares of the parent of Dunkin' Donuts cafes and Baskin-Robbins ice cream shops are up more than 50 percent from their debut at $19 in July 2011, on expectations for rapid earnings and unit expansion. Investors tend to punish such high-flying companies if they do not report stellar financial results and raise forecasts.
"I think the Street was baking in a little bit more margin growth," said Morningstar analyst Joscelyn MacKay.
The company on Thursday said fourth-quarter adjusted operating income margin increased 6.2 percentage points to 43.3 percent.
Operating margins were about 2 percentage points worse than the company originally projected amid higher selling, general and administrative expenses, one analyst said on the company's conference call.
Canton, Massachusetts-based Dunkin' Brands forecast 2012 earnings of $1.19 to $1.23 per share. Analysts, on average, were expecting $1.21, according to Thomson Reuters
Jefferies & Co. analyst Andy Barish, in a client note, attributed the stock's decline to the company's in-line profit outlook.
"We feel good about the year, but you never know what may happen" with weather and other factors for the balance of 2012, Dunkin Brands Chief Executive Nigel Travis said when asked about the company's seemingly cautious full-year forecast.
Limited-time sandwich offers and sales of K-cups -- single-use plastic pods filled with ground coffee -- gave a jolt to fourth-quarter sales at U.S. Dunkin' Donuts shops, which account for roughly 75 percent of company revenue and 85 percent of profits. K-cups are used in Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc's (GMCR.O) popular Keurig single-cup brewing machine, which are now being sold in Dunkin' Donuts stores.
"K-cups are not, I repeat, are not cannibalizing our in-store coffee or packaged coffee sales," said Travis.
Dunkin' Donuts, which plays up its unpretentious image, has not seen an impact from the debut of Starbucks Corp's (SBUX.O) lightest-ever "Blonde" roasts in January, Travis said.
Starbucks, the world's biggest coffee chain, which positions itself as a premium coffee seller, sees the new, mellower blends as way to expand market share and defend itself against more mainstream rivals like Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's Corp (MCD.N).
During the fourth quarter, sales at U.S. restaurants open at least 54 weeks rose 7.4 percent at Dunkin' Donuts coffee shops. They were up 5.8 percent at Baskin-Robbins ice cream stores, which got a lift from cakes and snack-sized cake bites.
Sales at established international restaurants rose 10.9 percent at Baskin-Robbins and 2.9 percent at Dunkin' Donuts.
For 2012, the company forecast U.S. same-store sales growth of 3.5 percent to 4 percent at Dunkin' Donuts. It expects those sales to be flat to up 2 percent at Baskin-Robbins.
It did not provide a forecast for international sales.
Dunkin' Brands said fourth-quarter net income was $11.6 million, or 10 cents per share. It had a loss of $15.3 million, or $1.02 per share, a year earlier.
Excluding one-time items, the company earned 30 cents a share. Analysts' average forecast was 28 cents.
Revenue rose 12.5 percent to $168.5 million.
Dunkin' Brands executives said they had no plans to pay down significantly more debt this year.
"We think a dividend is likely ahead," Barish said.
Private equity firms Bain Capital, Carlyle Group and Thomas H. Lee Partners bought Dunkin' Brands from global spirits maker Pernod Ricard SA (PERP.PA) in 2006. They took the company public last summer in one of the most successful initial public offerings of 2011.
Shares of Dunkin' Brands were off 74 cents to $28.27 in afternoon trading on the Nasdaq.
(Reporting By Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Arpita Mukherjee in Bangalore; Editing by Viraj Nair and John Wallace)