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ST. LOUIS-Panera Bread cafes had a strong third quarter, prompting executives at the fast-casual chain to up its guidance for the rest of the year. “We are more excited than ever about our brand and its growth,” said Ron Shaich, the company’s chairman and CEO during a conference call.

For the quarter, which ended Oct. 4, year-over-year same-store sales rose 8.2%. Net income increase 36%, to about $11.7 million and revenues jumped 31%, to $148.6 million.

These results have led executives to predict same-store sales growth of between 5.25% and 5.75% for the fourth quarter, up from the prior projection of 2.5% to 4%. If it reaches that goal, earnings per share are estimated at between $1.62 and $1.63, an increase of 30% from last year’s performance.

It does look as though the 825-café Panera will fall slightly short of its projected 150 new store openings this year, with executives predicting 140 units debuting. They attributed the slowdown to “longer than expected development cycles” and bad weather. Next year, the company is slated to open 150 to 160 cafes, of which slightly more than half will be franchised.

Executives are forecasting a 2.5% to 4% same-store sales increase year-over-year for 2006. The boost may seem conservative, they say, because the company will face tough comparisons to the strong showing it has had this year.

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