Sales at fast-food restaurants are going gangbusters again, reflecting the lessened need among 1 million newly employed U.S. workers to economize by eating every meal at home. With most of the stocks down from highs touched in March, the sector could be shaping up as a buy for investors.

The trend has been good news for McDonald's ( MCD) and Yum! Brands ( YUM), each of which has reported a stellar quarter in the past two days.

"As the recovery continues, it starts to filter down to restaurants ... people are getting jobs and are going out to eat more. They don't have to make lunch at home anymore," said Carl Sibilski, an analyst at Morningstar.

The convenience and low price of fast food are two important considerations for the newly employed, particularly those in poorer-paying sectors, where most of the job creation has occurred. "It makes sense for people to eat there a lot. It's quick and always there -- just look for a very busy street," said Sibilski.

McDonald's reported Wednesday that second-quarter earnings should be sharply higher than a year earlier and 3 cents above the Thomson First Call consensus. It also said systemwide same-store sales in the quarter rose 7.8%, its highest quarterly increase since 1987.

The company expects to earn 47 cents a share in the current quarter vs. the consensus estimate for 44 cents a share. It earned 37 cents a share in the second quarter of 2003. Results will be released July 22.

The improvement demonstrates the good timing of the company's revitalization plan, started in early 2003 by former chief executive Jim Cantalupo, who died suddenly three months ago of a heart attack. Cantalupo is credited with changing McDonald's overall strategy to improve existing restaurants rather than unending new-restaurant expansion.

McDonald's recent strength also could be attributed to its menu changes, which include healthier salad options and smaller portions.

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