ST. LOUIS — Company-owned comparable bakery cafe sales at Panera Bread Co. rose 7.4% in the fourth quarter ended Dec. 20, 2009, led by strong growth in December and the first half of January, the St. Louis-based company said in a preliminary quarterly update issued Jan. 20. As a result of the strong sales, Panera said earnings per share in the fourth quarter should fall in the range of 94c to 95c when results are announced Feb. 11.

“Our 7.4% growth in comparable bakery cafe sales in the fourth quarter, capped by comparable bakery cafe sales growth in excess of 9% in December and in January-to-date, validates our commitment to invest in our business to benefit the customer,” said Ron Shaich, chairman and chief executive officer. “Simply put, our strategy is working and our customers continue to respond to Panera with enthusiasm.”