In a struggling environment for restaurants, Panera Bread (NASDAQ:PNRA) has been a rare success story. The company has successfully gown its sales, carving out a niche pushing "clean" food, and being technologically forward.

What happened

Panera shares jumped after the chain reported strong Q4 results. For the quarter, comparable sales in company-owned stores rose 3%. In addition, earnings per share rose 10% to $1.92.

It was a solid quarter that capped a good year, and investors responded well. Shares closed January at $209.06, jumped after the earnings call, and closed February at $230.80, a 12% gain, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence.

PNRA Chart

Image source: YCharts.

So what

The most encouraging part of Panera's strong results is that they're driven by actions the company has taken, not a product hit or some other short-term boost. Doing things such as adding mobile order and pay, pushing food quality, and increasing the availability of delivery has fundamentally changed the brand.

"The power of our multi-year strategic plan and the impact of our initiatives to transform Panera into a better competitive alternative with expanded runways for growth becomes ever more clear with each passing quarter, " said CEO Ron Shaich in the Q4 earnings release. "In 2016, company comparable-store sales rose 4.2%, and our two-year comps were up 7.2%."

A loaf of bread

Panera locations bake their own bread. Image source: Panera Bread.

Now what

Going forward, Panera plans to continue its transformation. That means adding mobile order and pay in more locations while increasing the number of stores that deliver.

The chain expects continued growth in 2017 forecasting full-year 2017 earnings per share of $7.45 to $7.70, up 11% to 14%. In addition, the company sees comparable sales at company-owned locations rising by 3.5% to 4.5% Panera also plans to open 70 to 80 new bakery-cafe locations over the course of the year.

This is a steady-as-she-goes, well-run company executing on a solid plan. Panera has found a place in the market, and it has served those customers not just with food, but also by improving the ordering and payment process. That should continue in 2017 and the chain looks as if it should be able to deliver on its promises even while the overall restaurant industry struggles. 

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