by Kyle Woodley | August 29, 2012 9:38 am
No restaurant stock brings out the internal conflict in me quite like Panera Bread (NASDAQ:PNRA).
I love fresh bread, pastries, sandwiches and cool lemonade, but boy, could I not be more underwhelmed with how Panera executes. Still, money talks — and in this case, it says I should just ignore my taste buds and pay attention to the lines building up at the register.
You should, too.
Panera — which owns and franchises roughly 1,600 locations under the Panera Bread, Saint Louis Bread and Paradise Bakery & Café brands — is the prototypical restaurant growth stock. Shares have tripled in the past three years (including 45% gains in the past year), putting it solidly among other momentum-fueled restaurant stocks like Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG) and Buffalo Wild Wings (NASDAQ:BWLD).
Those returns haven’t come out of thin air. Panera has been a one-man earnings-day show for years, with some highlights including:
Now, that’s delicious.
Of course, there’s no point in celebrating past growth if you hit a brick wall. The only way investors can win out from here is if Panera keeps growing, and at a healthy clip.
There’s good news on that front too, though.
Panera’s right in the (ahem) breadbasket of the changing American tide: healthy eating. That trend has propelled the success of Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFM) and even has Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) shilling organic goods — but it also has put butts into Panera’s seats. While not every last menu item is fit for the fit, most are, from whole-grain bread to antibiotic-free turkey to fresh avocados (the “superfood”!).
Expansion continues to be an option for Panera — though I tend to balk at the idea of PNRA or a company like Chipotle (with 1,300-plus stores already) bursting out further, maybe because I already see at least one of these in every ‘burb.
But more promising to me are a couple other business plans: catering and drive-thrus.
The company’s catering segment saw sales increase 20% in the most recent quarter, and as long as Panera continues to market this business, I see it as an increasingly popular alternative to, say, sandwich spreads from Subway.
Also, PNRA is expanding the use of drive-through windows, with the company expecting 12% of its locations to be auto-ready by year’s end, which also should drive revenues.
The only thing that bothers me to any extent is profit margins. While PNRA’s 8% margins still are slightly better than the industry average, they’re still well below those of its fast-casual brother Chipotle (which have risen to roughly 12%) — and then I think about InvestorPlace Editor Jeff Reeves, who loves to remind anyone who will listen that CMG’s margins come amid portion controls that consist of, simply, “a giant spoon.” Still, this isn’t an enormous concern, so long as wheat prices don’t go out of control.
Earlier this year, Panera raised its full-year earnings per share target from $5.50-$5.55 per share to $5.58-$5.63 per share; that top figure would represent roughly 21% year-over-year earnings growth. Analysts actually have upped the ante, though, with expectations growing from $5.68 to $5.78 in the past two months.
Click to EnlargePanera seems to be in solid condition concerning short-term technicals, too, with its 200-day trend line only slightly starting to flatten, but tight Bollinger bands hinting at the possibility of another breakout.
Also uplifting: Panera just announced a $600 million share buyback program to replace its previous one. While I’d rather see a dividend any day of the week, PNRA’s clearly still in growth mode, so I’m taking this more of a sign of confidence than anything else. And I’m more than happy with Panera spending the cash anyway, as its flows are adequate and the company is 100% debt-free.
All hyper-growth stories in the restaurant biz come to an end at some point, and even when they slow, things can get ugly — case in point, Chipotle’s 27% share slide since reporting enviable revenue growth of 21% that still wasn’t enough to sate Wall Street analysts. It’s a legitimate concern and something you should keep in the back of your mind — especially for a company trading at a hefty 30 times earnings.
But Panera hasn’t even hinted at that kind of weakness yet. So sit down and enjoy this hearty growth stock — just make sure you keep your eyes on the news, because momentum stocks can turn on a dime.
Kyle Woodley is the Assistant Editor of InvestorPlace.com. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. Follow him on Twitter at @KyleWoodley. Check out recaps from previous trading days here.
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