The U.S. economy has been expanding for several years, yet many consumers remain anxious about the future. U.S. consumer spending in August had its weakest performance in five months, although this mostly resulted from a decline in spending on cars.

In these times, investors need a strategy that will guarantee profits so that they can retire someday.

One sector of the economy that is well-positioned for times of consumer uncertainty is fast-casual dining -- restaurants that are one step up from McDonald'sfast food but not fancy enough to put a dent in your wallet.

Panera Bread (PNRA) has been one of the leaders in this sector. Its success has shown that customers are willing to pay more for higher-quality, recognizable ingredients. Panera has tried to eliminate artificial ingredients and offer "clean" food, which it defines as "food that's simple, natural, unprocessed, and whole."

Panera Bread is a holding in Jim Cramer's Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. Want to be alerted before Cramer buys or sells PNRA? Learn more now.

Investors would be wise to grab some shares. The stock rose nearly 2% in Monday trading.

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Panera Bread has distinguished itself by making a number of promises about what ingredients it won't use in its food and clearly explains its philosophy on its website: "We are committed to removing artificial preservatives, sweeteners, and flavors along with colors from artificial sources from the food in our bakery-cafes by the end of 2016."

The company began with a commitment to bake fresh bread every day in its bakery-cafes. Each night, unsold bread and baked goods has been given to people in need.

The company's second-quarter earnings report showed that company-owned comparable-store sales rose 4.2% year over year. Over the last two years, they have climbed by 6.6%. CEO Ron Shaich said, "At a time when other restaurant companies are feeling the impact of a slowing consumer environment, we are maintaining our momentum."

Panera recently announced that it will serve clean bacon on its sandwiches and salads that are free of artificial preservatives, flavors, sweeteners and colors from artificial sources. The clean bacon is cured without artificial additives. Celery powder is used as a natural curing agent, in place of additives common to conventionally cured meats, like sodium nitrite and sodium phosphate.

Meanwhile, one of Panera's rivals for this market niche, Chipotle Mexican Grill, is still recovering from a food safety disaster that saw more than 50 customers get sick in an E. coli outbreak. Chipotle's revenue have sunk 42% over the past year.

Despite Panera's positives, the stock price has been in a downdraft in recent months. Many analysts believe it recently passed the tipping point into oversold territory. The firm's next earnings report, which is scheduled for Oct. 25, will likely spark renewed interest in the stock. 


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The author is an independent contributor who at the time of publication owned none of the stocks mentioned.