Panera Bread (NASDAQ:PNRA) disclosed a high-profile departure today, and the way it's handling the resulting hole in its executive team is unusual, to say the least.

The cafe operator said Neal Yanofsky, its president, will resign in January to pursue "other career opportunities." Panera's press release said Yanofsky, who has been with the company for more than four years -- and was president since April 2006 -- oversaw the company's legal, information-services, human-resources, business-development, finance, accounting, and supply-chain functions.

That's quite a laundry list of duties ... but really, who cares? That's the confusing message Panera seems to be sending , since it's opting not to fill the position. Yanofsky's existing duties will be split up among Chairman and CEO Ron Shaich, CFO Jeff Kip, and Executive Vice President John Maguire.

Panera has had a hard time balancing high growth and decent profitability lately. So it's interesting to note that as of Panera's most recent proxy statement, Yanofsky raked in $1.4 million -- a figure that includes salary, bonus, and stock and option awards -- when all was said and done. Shaich's total compensation was $875,227, Maguire's was $555,438, and Kip's was $457,300.

Sometimes, such partings can be a good sign for investors, especially if companies need some new managerial blood. Investors were relieved when Gap (NYSE:GPS) ousted Paul Pressler to search for new leadership, and of course, many people were thrilled to see Merrill Lynch's (NYSE:MER) Stan O'Neal and Citigroup's (NYSE:C) Chuck Prince recently get the boot.

In Panera's case, though, it's unclear whether investors should be relieved, apathetic, or running for the hills -- though judging from the stock's dip today, some of them seem to think the hills look pretty appealing. The way this development is being handled raises some questions, too. If Panera doesn't need a president now, did it ever need one? (Before Yanofsky, the company had no president.)

A quick glance at Panera's two-year chart shows that the stock faltered during Yanofsky's presidential tenure. Now, if Panera had been trying to groom a successor should Shaich retire, they're going to have to keep looking. I'd say this new development gives Panera shareholders yet another slice of uncertainty to chew on.

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Panera is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems Pay Dirt recommendation. Gap has been recommended in Motley Fool Inside Value and Motley Fool Stock Advisor.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool has a disclosure policy.