The fast casual dining sector can be considered a higher-end cousin to the quick-service restaurant (QSR) or fast food space, and for quite some time Chipotle had ruled the roost. But with the company still reeling after late 2015’s E. coli debacle, the time may be ripe for Panera Bread to increase its footprint in the fast casual space.
Back in November, number-crunchers had widely believed that Panera Bread would have the most to gain due to Chipotle’s troubles. At that time, Chipotle was in a serious PR rut due to the ongoing government investigations of the E. coli outbreaks. Now that Chipotle is making a solid recovery in the stock market, it still looks like those prognosticators are right, as Panera stock reached a record high on Thursday, and has gained 30 percent over the past year. Chipotle stock is currently 10 percent up this year, but still over 20 percent down year-over-year.
Despite Panera’s predictably good fortunes, the company remains humble, and refuses to suggest Chipotle’s problems aided its Wall Street surge this year. Panera executives also insist that comparing it to Chipotle is like comparing apples to oranges – while both offer consumers more than they could get at their nearest QSR, they offer different types of products.
“Our sales have never correlated heavily with Chipotle’s,” said Panera Bread president Andrew Madsen in February. “Customers don’t wake up in the morning and think I’m going to choose between fast casual restaurants. They think, I’m in a mood for a burrito or I’m in a mood for a soup or salad.”
Still, the statistics don’t lie. Panera’s sales are up 6.4 percent for the year, while same-store sales had risen by 3.6 percent in quarter four 2015. And sales figures before 11 a.m., which are growing faster than sales for lunch and dinner hours, suggest that Panera is competitive with the QSR likes of Burger King, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell.