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Is Panera One of the Best Companies in America?

By Eric Volkman - Apr 9, 2013 at 5:51PM

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The sandwich slinger is a fine enterprise, but weakness in several of its metrics eliminates it from our top 25 list.

Recently, The Motley Fool picked a handful of enterprises to be our 25 Best Companies in America. Considering the sheer number of businesses we had to whittle down, very few ultimately made the cut. But many, of course, are well worth a look and have good upside potential for investors. One that lands squarely in this category is casual dining restaurant chain Panera Bread (PNRA).

Think of Panera as Subway's more sophisticated older brother. The company operates or franchises more than 1,600 artisan sandwich shops across the country. These emphasize the quality and freshness of the bread, as implied by that comestible's occupying 50% of the firm's name.

The case for Panera
Panera Bread scores well in some, not all, metrics in the four stakeholder categories (i.e., employees, customers, shareholders, and corporate citizenry). Employee satisfaction, according to glassdoor.com, is relatively low -- only 33% of the firm's surveyed workers say they are either "very satisfied" or plain old "satisfied" laboring in its restaurants, while a full 16% feel "very dissatisfied."

Those scores are worse than the downmarket Subway. The ubiquitous sandwich maker recorded 39% and 12%, respectively, in those numbers. And if we're going the ubiquitous route, we might as well compare Panera to Starbucks. The mighty coffee chain seems to be doing right by its employees, 59% of whom report being satisfied to some degree. Only 4% say they are very dissatisfied working there.

In terms of customer experience, Panera scores pretty well in certain ratings. It's particularly strong in the area of brand recognition. In fact, it received a nearly perfect 100% mark in the category according to the data we compiled. It was also well in the 90%-plus range in our "lock-in" and "network" metrics. The former is the degree to which customers feel as if it would be difficult to switch to another company to provide the same types of goods. The latter, meanwhile, refers to the phenomenon in which a firm's products become perceived as more valuable the higher the number of customers it attracts.

On the down side, the clientele didn't give Panera high marks for costs -- perhaps because it famously refused to offer budget options during the recession. Its food remains comparatively expensive for a nationwide sandwich operation. The company also scored low in what's known as "economies of skill," the extent to which it's automated the customer service process. In this Fool's experience, it can occasionally take quite a bit of time to get a Panera meal. No, it's not McDonald's, but service could be snappier. Perhaps it could learn from such a veteran fast-food operator how to speed up its key processes like bread baking and sandwich assembly.

Panera has done fairly well for its shareholders, delivering solid top- and bottom-line growth over the years. Both have increased every year since at least 2007, with top line coming in just above $1 billion that year and climbing steadily to the $1.8 billion of 2011. Net profit over the same span went from $57 million to $136 million.

But that's not as impressive as some of its rivals. Over that five-year period, Chipotle more than doubled its revenues, to 2011's $2.3 billion. Net profit that year was more than triple that of 2007's figure.

And Panera's valuations don't blow away the competition. Analysts are expecting EPS growth of 20% between the company's previous fiscal year and the current one. Although this is marginally better than Chipotle's 17%, it's behind Starbucks' 21%.

In terms of community involvement, Panera seems to be making a good effort to improve the world it operates in. For more than 20 years, its Operation Dough-Nation (nifty title, that) suite of charity activities has covered schemes such as donation matching, distribution of unsold food, and the discounted sale of gift cards to non-profit organizations.

Additional considerations
Taken as a whole, Panera does not seem to excel as a company. But does it need to? It sells sandwiches, after all, not diamonds or sports cars or mansions. The point of restaurant chains is to produce and sell good, solid food and provide friendly service in a pleasant atmosphere. As far as this customer is concerned, it does all of these things well.

In terms of shareholder value, it's holding its own. It's hard to make money in the food business, and Panera should be commended for doing so -- even if it hasn't posted market-darling numbers like Chipotle has in the past or boasted some of the growth metrics of Starbucks. As a stock, Panera has many fans, and no wonder -- it traded at less than $40 five years ago. Now it's around $160.

Foolish bottom line
For its customers and shareholders, Panera delivers the goods. It's a fine place to eat and a pleasing stock to hold. Despite strong positives in both aspects, though, it's not at the very top of either category. Plus, those comparatively weak employee satisfaction numbers are cause for concern -- do people really prefer working at Subway? Ultimately, Panera's a capable firm that does what it does well, but capability is not excellence.

So it doesn't make our 25 Best list, but to repeat: very few can and did. Still, Panera is nevertheless a worthwhile company in many respects, as both a destination for a good sandwich and a potential addition to a stock portfolio.

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