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Panera Bread says bad weather hurting first-quarter sales

By Dhanya Skariachan

Feb 18 (Reuters) - Panera Bread Co gave a disappointing profit forecast for the current quarter after blaming inclement weather for hurting customer visits to its bakery cafes.

The news dragged its shares down 1.4 percent in after-hours trade on Tuesday.

The company expects earnings of $1.49 per share to $1.55 per share in the first quarter. Analysts on average were looking for a profit of $1.70.

It said sales at company-owned bakery cafes open at least 18 months were down about 2.2 percent in the first 48 days of the period.

The fast-growing chain until recently was an investor favorite for its ability to keep increasing restaurant sales despite the sluggish U.S. economic recovery. That run ended in the third quarter, when Panera reported that it was experiencing "operational friction" that limited its ability to squeeze out higher sales.

The weak outlook for the current period overshadowed a better-than-expected profit in the fourth quarter.

Net income rose to $54.2 million, or $1.96 per share, in its fourth quarter that ended on Dec. 31, up from $51.6 million, or $1.75 a share, a year earlier. Analysts were looking for a profit of $1.94 a share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Sales at company-owned bakery cafes open at least 18 months were up 1.7 percent in the fourth quarter, compared to the 1.4 percent rise analysts had expected, according to Consensus Metrix.