(FORTUNE Magazine) – STARBUCKS CORP. Even a first-time customer strolling into a Starbucks espresso bar is bound to guess he'll get no ordinary cup of joe. Polished hardwood gleams, the fixtures are postmodern trendy, and the blissful aroma of roasted arabica coffee beans fills the air. Investors in this Seattle company are savoring an even headier smell: profits. Since Starbucks went public in June, shares have risen from $17 to $28.50, an increase of 68%. Adding 75 new outlets next year to the 150 already out there, says analyst Christopher Vroom of Alex. Brown, will help give net income a 92% boost next fiscal year to $7.1 million on a 53% rise in sales to $136 million. The company percolates with get-up-and-go; alas, so does the stock price, now trading on a caffeine high at 57 times Vroom's earnings estimates. Coffee cognoscenti are happy to shell out from 95 cents to $2.25 for a cup of Starbucks' potent brew, but only because they believe it's distinctively wonderful. The company goes to the ends of the earth to see that it is. Senior vice president David Olsen roams the globe to make sure Starbucks' growers in over 20 countries offer him their best. If they don't, he cuts them off. Says Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz: ''We're zealots, and we're proud of it.'' After the beans arrive in Seattle, trained roasters brown them almost black. Packed in vacuum-sealed bags, the coffee is then shipped to mail-order customers around the country, who pay anywhere from $6.95 to $14.95 per pound, and to Starbucks' fast-growing network of stores in the Pacific Northwest, California, and Chicago. There, trained baristi (translation: bartenders) use custom-designed, Italian-made machines to prepare espresso or American machines for regular coffee. Don't bother asking about franchise opportunities. Schultz doesn't trust you to do it right. Says he: ''All this vertical integration is based on asking ourselves, What do we have to do to obtain the best product and the best atmosphere for our customers? The answer is, We have to do everything ourselves.'' And don't ask for artificially flavored coffee either, even though it's the fastest-growing segment of the gourmet coffee business. Schultz calls it java blasphemy and won't let Starbucks sell the stuff.

ULTRA PAC When its competitors are the mammoth plastic container units of Mobil and Tenneco, a bantamweight like Ultra Pac (fiscal 1992 sales: $18.3 million) had better bring something special to the deli counter. It does: Ultra Pac's boxes are made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PETE. More flexible than the oriented polystyrene, or OPS, the big boys typically use, PETE makes for tighter seals, less breakage, and fresher food. Ultra Pac, based in Rogers, Minnesota, also makes packaging for supermarkets introducing new deli products or baked goods. Says CEO Calvin Krupa: ''If a customer today wants a special product, we can start designing the molds tomorrow and have samples out in three weeks.'' Companies that buy from Mobil and Tenneco typically order ready-made containers from catalogues. Says analyst Steven Crowley of Craig-Hallum, a brokerage firm in Minneapolis: ''Ultra Pac goes in and services the heck out of the customer.'' Because PETE is easily recyclable, Krupa figures his company will soon become a major customer for recycled PETE pellets, which can be used to make containers for produce and flowers but not for deli food. Crowley estimates that those expanding markets will help Ultra Pac earnings rise 64% to $2.1 million in fiscal 1993 on a 45% increase in sales, to $26.5 million. The stock traded recently at $11, or 19 times his earnings per share estimates.

USA TRUCK The Clinton bandwagon isn't the only Arkansas outfit burning rubber these days. Look at USA Truck of Van Buren, a long-distance hauler targeting manufacturers using just-in-time inventory systems. USA's competitive edge: one of the best software systems in the industry. The software keeps track of which truck is where, which tires need rotation, and a thousand other essentials. It helps management choose the best rig for a job, cut wasted turnaround time, and ultimately shave off crucial pennies per mile in a business where margins are as thin as the paint on an interstate lane divider. Says chief financial officer Jerry Orler: ''This is a game of inches, not miles. There are probably loads where we make 1 cent per mile per day.'' Analyst Thom Albrecht of A.G. Edwards figures USA's software and management team will help lift net income 65%, to $3.3 million in 1992 on a 16% rise in revenues, to $61 million. The stock traded recently at $15.50, or 21 times his estimate of this year's earnings per share.