Panera Bread Catches a Light Chill

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Panera Bread's (Nasdaq: PNRA  ) second-quarter financial results weren't too shabby, but its outlook gave investors little reason to blow their dough on the stock.

Second-quarter net income increased 33% to $27 million, or $0.85 per share. Earnings included a $0.01-per-share benefit from the company's share repurchases, and a $0.05-per-share dent related to an ongoing unclaimed-property audit.

Panera's sales increased 14%, to $378.1 million. Same-store sales increased 9.9% overall. Company-owned cafe same-store sales increased 9.6%, driven by a 2.5% retail price increase and a product-mix impact of 5.2%. In its conference call, management attributed the performance to strength in salads, its meal-upgrade initiative, and its catering business. Importantly, operating margin ticked up nicely, climbing to 12.2% from 9.9% in the year-ago period.

Panera managers talked a little about the company's different segments in its conference call, such as high-performing "chill" business. Nope, "chill" is not an initiative encouraging customers to chill out in Panera (at least, not without buying something). It actually refers to Panera's line of frozen drinks and smoothies, all of which are made with Stonyfield Farm organic yogurt. This probably adds a granola-crunchy healthy halo to the drinks, and helps to distinguish them from rivals' offerings.

Management added that McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) recent launch and promotion of its own chilly beverage has drawn attention to the entire frozen-drink universe, in which companies like Jamba (Nasdaq: JMBA  ) and Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX  ) also compete. Suddenly, the chilled-drink space has filled up quite quickly with companies jockeying for position.

If investors displayed a rather "chilly" reception to Panera's results, it's because its guidance gave them little reason to get hot and bothered. Panera lowered third-quarter earnings estimates to a range of $0.71 to $0.73 per share; Wall Street analysts had expected $0.75. Still, Panera said it believes it will increase earnings by 26% to 27% in the full year.

McDonald's and Chipotle (NYSE: CMG  ) look particularly solid in the fast-food space, but Panera's business is also holding up well in a difficult economic climate. Although its shares have receded somewhat, it still looks a tad pricey; Panera's trading at 19 times forward earnings, even though analysts only expect 16% earnings growth next year. Still, when Panera's comps growth was more anemic, it was harder to fathom paying up. Panera belongs on investors' watch list now: While a cheaper price might be nice, outright pessimism just seems overblown.

Chipotle is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick and a Motley Fool Hidden Gems selection. Starbucks is a Stock Advisor recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Chipotle. Try any of our Foolish newsletters free for 30 days.

Alyce Lomax owns shares of Starbucks. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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