Panera: It starts with the bread

Panera (PNRA), based in St. Louis, was originally part of the Au Bon Pain chain. Its founders sold Au Bon Pain and other businesses to concentrate on Panera. The restaurants feature fresh-baked breads, salads and similar fare. The company has more than 1,500 restaurants in 41 states.. When you walk into one, you get a come-in-and-hang-out vibe that's similar to Starbucks'.

Panera differs from Starbucks in that its business starts with the food, and particularly with bread baked on location. (The dough is made at centralized processing facilities.)

So far, Panera has not seen its consumers pull back in the latest economic lull. In the fiscal third quarter, revenue jumped 17% to $529 million; same-store sales were up 6.2%, a healthy gain. Earnings hit $1.24 a share, up from 97 cents a year ago, and it boosted guidance for this year, to $5.86 to $5.88. In 2013, it expects $7 a share in earnings, 10 cents better than the Wall Street estimate.

The stock is up 19% this year. Like Starbucks' shares, Panera's peaked in 2006. And Panera's had also fallen (by 51%) through November 2008. They're up 363% since.

But the difference for investors is that there's much more room to grow: Panera has only 13% of the number of outlets Starbucks boasts. Panera operates just three non-U.S. restaurants, all near Toronto.. In a way, Panera has barely gotten going. But the pace of expansion will be steady, with around 120 new company- and franchised-owned restaurants in 2012, and an additional 115 to 120 restaurants in 2013.

Caribou: Closer to coffee

An even closer parallel to Starbucks is Caribou Coffee.

Caribou Coffee (CBOU) is the globe's second-largest coffee chain, after Starbucks. But the gap is huge: As of April, it had just 596 coffee houses, including 188 franchised locations, in 21 states and nine countries outside the U.S.

Founded in Minneapolis in 1992, Caribou was acquired by what is now Arcapita, a U.S. subsidiary of Bahrain's Arcapita Bank. The coffee chain went public in 2005, and Arcapita sold its stake in Caribou in 2011 for about $73 million. 

Caribou's revenue tripled between 2002 and 2011. The company had a strong year in 2011, with sales up 15% to $326.5 million and earnings up 267% to $1.69. Its 2012 revenue hasn't been so robust, in part because its commercial business has sagged.

The stock was up as much as 29% for the year in April, but, like Starbucks, Caribou has since fallen back. As of Friday, the shares were down 15% for the year.

Still, "they have a lot of runway in front of them," says Stephens' Will Slabaugh.

Caribou's Midwest base provides plenty of opportunities, and the chain can expand across the Great Lakes. It also has a big advantage over Starbucks: It is much easier to double in size when there are just 596 outlets than when there are 18,000.

Dunkin' Brands: The quick-service alternative

And then there's Dunkin' Brands (DNKN), which runs the Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins chains. Dunkin' Donuts, which has more than 10,000 outlets, is increasingly focused on selling coffee, both in its own restaurants and in bags in stores around the country.

Unlike Starbucks, Panera and Caribou, Dunkin' Donuts is in the "quick service restaurant" business; it says it is the nation's top retailer of "ready-brewed hot, regular, flavored, decaf and iced coffee."

Further, Baskin-Robbins has nearly 7,000 outlets of its own. The chains, both founded after World War II, operate in 58 countries. Over the years, they have had several owners. In July 2011, then-owners Thomas H. Lee, Carlyle Group and Bain Capital (yes, that Bain Capital) took the company public. Carlyle still owns 11.6% of the stock. Fidelity Management is the largest current shareholder, with 17.1%.

Dunkin' Brands is definitely in growth mode. It has added 4,800 outlets since 2006 -- nearly all of them franchises. It makes its money primarily from franchise and marketing fees. Revenue in 2011 was up 21% from 2007. Earnings, adjusted for one-time charges, have grown 67%.

It also has more than 900 outlets in South Korea and 229 in the Middle East. It plans to have 500 outlets in India. And it has vowed to make Dunkin' Donuts, which now operates in 36 states, "America's favorite coffee" with some 15,000 U.S. outlets by 2031.

Dunkin' Brands sees its greatest opportunity in the Midwest and West, where it has scant presence in many markets. That means heavy competition with McDonald's, Starbucks and Caribou, not to mention many small chains. Dunkin' differentiates itself by being the blue-collar alternative to fancy coffee -- more like McDonald's than an Italian coffeehouse.

So while it lacks the boutique feel of the others I've mentioned here, that's a selling point. While Dunkin' Brands' shares are down 17% from their June peak, they are still up 24% for the year, besting Starbucks, Caribou and Panera.

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