Image: Espresso machine with mug, close-up © nd61,  SuperStock

In the back of every investor's mind is the stock that got away and became an ungodly success.

Consider Starbucks (SBUX), which grew from a small Seattle coffeehouse chain into a global powerhouse. If you'd invested $1,000 in Starbucks' initial public offering in June 1992, your stake would be worth $6.4 million today -- and that doesn't include dividends.

To make a bundle, though, you didn't have to predict 20 years ago that Starbucks would succeed in turning premium coffee into a daily habit for untold millions. Starbucks saw its stock decline 79.6% from November 2006 to November 2008. A savvy investor might have noticed that its coffee shops were still full of squatting students and online entrepreneurs, and bought at the 2008 bottom. The gain since then? 500%.

These days, of course, Starbucks is all grown up. So for the big gains that come with rapid growth, you might want to look for the next Starbucks among smaller companies with similar business traits, attractive stock prices and a lot more room to grow. I have three possibilities for you: Panera Bread (PNRA), Caribou Coffee (CBOU) and Dunkin' Brands (DNKN).

Building another Starbucks

Few companies, of course, grow into the sort of giant Howard Schultz built. It's the world's largest coffeehouse chain and the second-largest restaurant chain, after McDonald's (MCD).

Schultz joined Starbucks in 1981, left to start his own coffee-shop chain, then returned to buy Starbucks in 1987. He built an empire based on the Italian coffee bar model, featuring espressos, cappuccinos and edible treats, and a relaxed, relatively cozy environment where customers could schmooze with friends, talk business, read or do schoolwork. For its customers, Starbucks wasn't a workplace, and it wasn't home. It was, as Starbucks says, a third place. Yes, the coffee commanded a premium price, but the idea was that it could be a small luxury that wouldn't break the budget.

Starbucks required locations near where people lived or worked because, as Stephens Inc. analyst Will Slabaugh notes, a coffee shop needs lots of volume, which means lots of people. The idea worked in Seattle, then Vancouver and Chicago. By the time the company went public in September 1992, it had 165 outlets.

The rest is history.

Starbucks shops began appearing not just in the usual places, but also in airports, train stations and malls. It started selling coffee in grocery stores and roasted beans for Costco Wholesale (COST). It developed an instant coffee, Via, and started packaging K-cups for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters' (GMCR) Keurig coffee maker. Starbucks also recently launched its own one-cup machine, the Verismo.

This summer, the company paid $100 million for Bay Bread, a San Francisco operator of 19 La Boulange bakeries. Starbucks is expected to build that into a nationwide business that supplies all of its U.S. stores and offers products to companies like Whole Foods Market (WFM) and Trader Joe's.

Starbucks now employs 149,000 people and operates in 61 countries.

Why it works

For Starbucks, the challenge has been maintaining the company's core ideas: a true love for coffee and the communal feel of its stores.

That's not always easy. In the early 2000s, Starbucks grew too quickly. With stores seemingly on every corner in some cities, Starbucks was no longer "your neighborhood coffee shop." Trendy buyers sought out alternatives. Then the recession hit, and consumers found they could live without their $4 daily lattes. Same-store sales, a key metric, fell 10%; there were worries the decline might reach 20%, according to The New York Times.

Schultz, who had stepped aside as CEO in 2000, returned in January 2008. Investors continued to panic, though, driving the stock down to an intraday low of $7.06 in November 2008. The company halted all new store openings, closed 977 stores and laid off 18,400 workers.

The situation stabilized in early 2009, and the company began expanding again. It plans to have 1,500 outlets in China by 2015. It expects to add a net of about 1,200 new stores globally in 2013 alone. At the end of June, it had nearly 18,000 outlets around the world, 55% of which are company-owned. In the Americas, Starbucks owns 61% of its 13,000 or so units.

The stock rebounded from its 2008 lows, helped, obviously, by the big stock market rally since 2009. Shares peaked in April at a record $62 before the latest global slowdown hit. The stock has since fallen around 25%.

Still, if you'd been smart enough to buy the shares at $7.06 in November 2008, you'd be up more than 530%.

This week, Starbucks should report more than $13 billion in revenue for fiscal 2012 and $1.3 billion in net income. Earnings for the year should hit $5.85 a share before one-time charges, and $6.98 in fiscal 2013.

With the stock priced in the $40s now, those numbers might make Starbucks a buy. If it's a brand name you've wanted to own, go for it. But remember that finding enough growth to move the needle is hard for a company this size. Stock gains of 500%, or even 100%, appear unlikely in the near term.

For outsize gains, you'll need to look elsewhere.

To find the next Starbucks, remember these keys: Trendy beverages, food that is often better than a fast-food restaurant's typical fare, and a welcoming, communal atmosphere. Which brings us to Panera Bread, Caribou Coffee and Dunkin' Brands.

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Panera: It starts with the bread

Panera (PNRA), based in St. Louis, was originally part of the Au Bon Pain chain. Its founders sold Au Bon Pain and other businesses to concentrate on Panera. The restaurants feature fresh-baked breads, salads and similar fare. The company has more than 1,500 restaurants in 41 states.. When you walk into one, you get a come-in-and-hang-out vibe that's similar to Starbucks'.

Panera differs from Starbucks in that its business starts with the food, and particularly with bread baked on location. (The dough is made at centralized processing facilities.)

So far, Panera has not seen its consumers pull back in the latest economic lull. In the fiscal third quarter, revenue jumped 17% to $529 million; same-store sales were up 6.2%, a healthy gain. Earnings hit $1.24 a share, up from 97 cents a year ago, and it boosted guidance for this year, to $5.86 to $5.88. In 2013, it expects $7 a share in earnings, 10 cents better than the Wall Street estimate.

The stock is up 19% this year. Like Starbucks' shares, Panera's peaked in 2006. And Panera's had also fallen (by 51%) through November 2008. They're up 363% since.

But the difference for investors is that there's much more room to grow: Panera has only 13% of the number of outlets Starbucks boasts. Panera operates just three non-U.S. restaurants, all near Toronto.. In a way, Panera has barely gotten going. But the pace of expansion will be steady, with around 120 new company- and franchised-owned restaurants in 2012, and an additional 115 to 120 restaurants in 2013.

Caribou: Closer to coffee

An even closer parallel to Starbucks is Caribou Coffee.

Caribou Coffee (CBOU) is the globe's second-largest coffee chain, after Starbucks. But the gap is huge: As of April, it had just 596 coffee houses, including 188 franchised locations, in 21 states and nine countries outside the U.S.

Founded in Minneapolis in 1992, Caribou was acquired by what is now Arcapita, a U.S. subsidiary of Bahrain's Arcapita Bank. The coffee chain went public in 2005, and Arcapita sold its stake in Caribou in 2011 for about $73 million. 

Caribou's revenue tripled between 2002 and 2011. The company had a strong year in 2011, with sales up 15% to $326.5 million and earnings up 267% to $1.69. Its 2012 revenue hasn't been so robust, in part because its commercial business has sagged.

The stock was up as much as 29% for the year in April, but, like Starbucks, Caribou has since fallen back. As of Friday, the shares were down 15% for the year.

Still, "they have a lot of runway in front of them," says Stephens' Will Slabaugh.

Caribou's Midwest base provides plenty of opportunities, and the chain can expand across the Great Lakes. It also has a big advantage over Starbucks: It is much easier to double in size when there are just 596 outlets than when there are 18,000.

Dunkin' Brands: The quick-service alternative

And then there's Dunkin' Brands (DNKN), which runs the Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins chains. Dunkin' Donuts, which has more than 10,000 outlets, is increasingly focused on selling coffee, both in its own restaurants and in bags in stores around the country.

Unlike Starbucks, Panera and Caribou, Dunkin' Donuts is in the "quick service restaurant" business; it says it is the nation's top retailer of "ready-brewed hot, regular, flavored, decaf and iced coffee."

Further, Baskin-Robbins has nearly 7,000 outlets of its own. The chains, both founded after World War II, operate in 58 countries. Over the years, they have had several owners. In July 2011, then-owners Thomas H. Lee, Carlyle Group and Bain Capital (yes, that Bain Capital) took the company public. Carlyle still owns 11.6% of the stock. Fidelity Management is the largest current shareholder, with 17.1%.

Dunkin' Brands is definitely in growth mode. It has added 4,800 outlets since 2006 -- nearly all of them franchises. It makes its money primarily from franchise and marketing fees. Revenue in 2011 was up 21% from 2007. Earnings, adjusted for one-time charges, have grown 67%.

It also has more than 900 outlets in South Korea and 229 in the Middle East. It plans to have 500 outlets in India. And it has vowed to make Dunkin' Donuts, which now operates in 36 states, "America's favorite coffee" with some 15,000 U.S. outlets by 2031.

Dunkin' Brands sees its greatest opportunity in the Midwest and West, where it has scant presence in many markets. That means heavy competition with McDonald's, Starbucks and Caribou, not to mention many small chains. Dunkin' differentiates itself by being the blue-collar alternative to fancy coffee -- more like McDonald's than an Italian coffeehouse.

So while it lacks the boutique feel of the others I've mentioned here, that's a selling point. While Dunkin' Brands' shares are down 17% from their June peak, they are still up 24% for the year, besting Starbucks, Caribou and Panera.

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