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Panera CEO weighs in on fast food breakfast war

Don't expect Panera Bread to break out the big guns in the breakfast war that's raging in fast food.

"My basic thesis is when there's a war going on, don't get trampled by the elephants," said Ron Shaich, the chain's founder, chairman and CEO, in an in-person interview. "Don't try to beat them. Be who you are."

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Shaich said Panera doesn't compete for the same customers as Dunkin Donuts or McDonald's, both of which are leaders in the breakfast space.

Panera's Breakfast Power Sandwich
Source: Panara Bread
Panera's Breakfast Power Sandwich

"These guys are all competing for this very broad mass market, which is essentially very much focused on price and speed," he said. "We're focused in a different niche, which is a higher-quality experience and a less time-sensitive experience."

The breakfast wars recently heated up when Yum Brands' Taco Bell rolled out breakfast for the first time nationwide and debuted commercials taking jabs at McDonald's. The hamburger chain followed suit with a free coffee promotion and a Twitter post depicting Ronald McDonald petting a scared-looking chihuahua with the caption, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

This year, chains have ramped up breakfast offerings after it showed the strongest traffic growth of any time of day, rising 3 percent in 2013, according to market research firm NPD Group. Last year, breakfast accounted for roughly 21 percent of visits in an industry plagued by dropping traffic.

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Despite the increased breakfast focus by competitors, Shaich said his company hasn't decided to concentrate less on that time of day. On its last earnings call, Shaich said 80 percent of its volume occurs after 11 a.m.

—By CNBC's Katie Little

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