ELGIN, Ill. -- Restaurant equipment manufacturer Middleby Corporation (NASDAQ:MIDD) reported strong increases in earnings for the first quarter of 2003.

According to a release, the company posted net earnings of $2.6 million (28 cents per share) on net sales of $54.8 million for the period ended March 29, 2003. In last year's comparable quarter, net earnings were $1 million (12 cents per share) on net sales of $54.5 million.

Gross profit for the quarter was $19 million, compared with $17.9 million in the prior year. Gross margin rate improved to 34.8 percent, compared with 32.8 percent in the comparable quarter 2002. Operating income increased to $6.4 million in the quarter, up from $4.7 million in the prior year. Operating income margins improved to 11.7 percent, compared with 8.7 percent for the prior year.

In the release, Selim A. Bassoul, president and chief executive officer at Middleby said, "We believe that our customer base intends to expand at a greater pace in the future, but that they are waiting for a clearer picture of the economic outlook before moving forward." In the meantime, Bassoul added, Middleby will continue developing energy- and labor-saving equipment.

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