Panera's recipe for the recession: Let the dough rise

Conventional wisdom holds that, when it comes to fast food in a recession, less is decidedly more. In this perspective, desperate consumers, prioritizing price above pleasure, rush into feed stations, fill up on the calories that they need to get through the day, and rush out again. Ingredients and flavor are secondary considerations and expectations about ambiance are limited to the hope that the bathroom will be sanitary and the floor will be clean.

In this context, Panera's success in the recession is a surprise. It's hard to explain how the chain -- which charges more, takes longer, and doesn't even have a cute mascot -- can possibly be thriving in a brutal economic climate. Yet, thrive it does: the company plans to open 80 new locations in 2009, and its same-store sales rose 3.4 percent in 2008. They have continued to rise this year, and the company's stock, which rose 50 percent last year, is only slightly off in 2009.