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R.J. Hottovy

R.J. Hottovy, CFA, is a consumer strategist for Morningstar.

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Though it has improved its competitive position more than many retailers, the firm will continue to face pressure from Amazon on many of its product and service initiatives, limiting growth and margin expansion potential.

While it is hard to handicap if a deal will happen, there has been an uptick in restaurant M&A in the last few months and it's easy to see that Panera would be an attractive target.

An acquirer would probably be attracted to the narrow-moat company's industry-leading loyalty program engagement and digital sales penetration, expanding delivery capabilities, a growing at-home business, and a potential refranchising/leveraged recap play.

Average selling price increases across most categories, improved basketball sales, and strong top-line momentum in China and other emerging markets suggest the wide-moat brand retains its dominance.