Panera Bread Stock May Keep Climbing Despite Slow '2.0' Tech Upgrade

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Panera Bread (PNRA) stock climbed 18% during the past three months and may post more gains, one analyst said, even though its high-tech upgrade has taken longer to complete than some investors wanted.

"We think shares are slightly undervalued," said Morningstar analyst RJ Hottovy, who maintains a hold rating. "It's had a nice ride over the past two months and you could have some more volatility over the next two quarters, but it's a name that's ahead of the curve in terms of what consumers are looking for."

Panera Bread has been rolling out a slew of innovations at stores, from iPad ordering platforms in restaurants to other technological upgrades, in a project known as Panera 2.0.

Ron Shaich, the company's chairman and CEO, said Panera 2.0 is "an integrated, comprehensive, end-to-end solution that we believe will reduce friction such as wait times, improve order accuracy, and minimize or eliminate crowding," in an April 2014 news release announcing the launch of the project.

But the effects of this ambitious plan haven't come to fruition as fast as investors had hoped.

Jim Cramer's charitable trust Action Alerts PLUS recently sold its holdings in Panera Bread. Read his full analysis here.

"We believe that the fruits of [Panera 2.0] will not be reaped for at least another eight months or so," Cramer, the portfolio manager, and research director Jack Mohr wrote. "We are more comfortable with companies that have the ability to capture the tailwinds of an improving international economic and currency environment, and are less inclined to stick with those that are leveraged to a weakening retail sales picture."

Wedbush Securities analyst Nick Setyan, who maintains an outperform rating, also noted investors' frustration with Panera 2.0.

"If we don't see results by fourth-quarter from Panera 2.0, then management has to go in a different direction or an activist investor needs to come in," he said. "Regardless, I think there is value creation in the stock.

Panera said it expects to upgrade some 300 stores with Panera 2.0 technology this year, compared to the 100 stores upgraded in 2014.

While Hottovy acknowledges the time it's taking for Panera 2.0 to roll out, he says the company's catering operations are a catalyst for the stock -- and one that's not getting enough attention.

"While the market is looking at the Panera 2.0 part, it hasn't received the credit it deserves for its catering operations." Panera is building catering hubs to allow its cafes to focus on daily customer orders. The company said it has built 21 hubs, as of the end of 2014 and expects 11 new ones by 2015.

While the hubs allow its cafes to focus on day-to-day orders, the number of hubs is tiny, compared to the 1,901 bakery-cafes Panera had in operation through March 31.

Shares of Panera rose 5% year-to-date, while competitors Potbelly (PBPB) and El Pollo Loco (LOCO) Holdings returned 9% and 22%, respectively.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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