From Starbucks to McDonald's, analysts make a case for a Panera buyer

Shares Panera Bread fell more than 2 percent on Tuesday, just a day after a report surfaced that the company was exploring strategic alternatives, including a possible sale.

The chain is working with advisors to look at its options after receiving takeover interest, according to sources close to Panera cited by Bloomberg. One of those sources told the news service that potential suitors could include JAB Holdings, Starbucks and Domino's.

While the report said that there was no certainty that a deal would be struck, analysts were quick to speculate about what company could be Panera's best suitor.

Credit Suisse analyst Jason West wrote in a research note that he sees JAB as the "most likely acquirer" of the sandwich and bakery chain.

JAB has a history of scooping up food companies. It acquired Krispy Kreme Doughnuts back in 2016 for $1.35 billion and purchased Keurig Green Mountain for $13.9 billion in 2015.

Of course, not all analysts see JAB as the ideal candidate.

"We think it is unlikely a Private Equity player steps in like JAB," Matthew DiFrisco, an analyst with Guggenheim, wrote in a research note Tuesday. "JAB has completed five deals in the last six years, focusing on emerging, differentiated franchise concepts that skew towards cafes and consumer packaged goods."

DiFrisco said Panera operates in a highly competitive market and could be a higher price tag than JAB "has shown a willingness to pay."

Stephen Anderson of Maxim Group said that McDonald's, Yum Brands and Restaurant Brands International could be potential suitors. However, he sees Starbucks as the most likely partner.

"In terms of customer and product mix, as well as the size of the acquisition, we believe SBUX may emerge as the most likely partner for Panera, but given that CEO Kevin Johnson began his role at Starbuck's top post just yesterday, as well as that company's desire to focus on premium coffee, we still would view a potential Starbucks-Panera union as unlikely," he wrote in a research note Tuesday.

Sara Senatore at Bernstein also sees a Starbucks acquisition as unlikely, noting that the coffee shop has only bought smaller targets in the past. She also shot down a potential buyout by McDonald's, saying that the burger chain has been in the process of shedding assets.

Senatore said that both Starbucks and McDonald's have invested heavily in proprietary technology and are unlikely to acquire Panera for its tech.

Sharon Zackfia at William Blair added Chipotle Mexican Grill to the list of possible buyers. However, the chain continues to have trouble recovering from a string of foodborne illnesses that scared people away from its chain making it an unlikely suitor.

Peter Saleh, an analyst with BTIG wrote in a research note Monday that he still sees a private equity firm as the most likely buyer.

"While we believe the list of potential strategic buyers is likely limited to Starbucks and McDonald's given size, strategy and financial capacity, we think such a strategic buyer is possible with greater likelihood from private equity or other private operator," he said.

Saleh said that if Panera were to be acquired by another company, CEO Ron Shaich would have to be onboard, "given how instrumental he is to the brand." Shaich's controls about 16.5 percent of the shareholder vote with his Class B shares.

If Panera were to strike a deal, it would become the fourth major restaurant chain to be purchased so far this year. Restaurant Brands International, which owns Burger King and Tim Hortons, completed its $1.8 billion purchase of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen last week.

Darden Restaurants, which owns chains like Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, recently disclosed that it plans to buy Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen for $780 million and Oak Hill Capital Partners is slated to acquire Checkers Drive-In in a $525 million deal.

Representatives for Dominos, JAB, Chipotle, Restaurant Brands International, Yum Brands and McDonald's did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment. A Starbucks spokesperson declined to comment on the report, saying, "We do no comment on rumors or speculation."

When reached by CNBC Monday, Panera Chief Financial Officer Michael Bufano said: "As a matter of policy, we never comment on rumors or speculation."

Watch: Panera jumps on sale rumors