A write-up that I recently read about Panera Bread’s expansion plans gave me hope within this troubling economy (see: “Panera Looks to New Venues in Expansion,” Reuters, 3/19/09). A national bakery chain with a well-developed brand name, high quality ingredients, convenient and competitive food offerings, and lots of room for growth, What Time Does Panera Bread Close has evolved an equation that should help guarantee solid returns for a long time. Panera currently has 1,250 locations with plans to open an additional 80-90 locations this coming year, a growth of around 7% of its current locations. In California, Panera has just 80 locations, so you will find considerable opportunities within that state alone. Since becoming wholly independent from Au Bon Pain Co. in 1999, Panera’s stock has grown thirteen fold, and in 2006, was recognized as the top performer within the restaurant category for one-, five- and ten-year returns to shareholders, so it’s success is nothing sudden – it has been growing slowly and steadily.
Personally, I adore Panera. The bread is freshly baked, the menu offerings are well-designed, the climate is inviting and warm, and the price is reasonable…and, I personally can’t consider a fast casual cafe chain which comes even close to winning vs. Panera on any one of those dimensions. Au Bon Pain was created on the same premise that brought Panera success – hospitality, quality, fresh baked goods – however it is, for me, a pale comparison. Take for instance, hospitality – in Panera Bread Breakfast, you are given a beeper while waiting around for your food, so there is absolutely no confusion as soon as your food is prepared and in many cases, someone behind the counter will fall out of their method to bring your food for your table. The food is served on actual plates with real silverware as well as the seating includes comfortable booths and comfy armchairs. In Au Bon Pain, the silverware is plastic, the chairs are stiff and you also must bring the food to your table yourself as well as the order process involves a less personal approach of filling out a form and handing the shape for the order taker. With regards to quality and freshness, Panera also wins hands-down. The bread is served right out of the oven plus they sell their baguettes to consider home, something which Au Bon Pain either fails to do or will not effectively communicate that it does.
Most of us know just how a hot sandwich can draw out the ingredients’ flavors – Panera understands this and offers paninis – a design of grilling sandwiches that is extremely popular. At Au Bon Pain, instead of paninis, it provides ‘hot sandwiches’, which are sandwiches that are continuously kept warm within heat lamp. If you’ve ever endured food which is kept warm this way, you’ll know it just doesn’t taste great or very fresh. For any place that promotes the quality and freshness of its breads, Au Bon Pain simply qxuhyp not do as good a job executing. Finally, in terms of I can tell, Panera also wins on value. At Panera Bread, your order of the sandwich automatically features a bag of chips and a pickle thrown in and they also smartly provide a half-sandwich and soup or salad combination, popular with health-conscious customers. At Au Bon Pain, almost every ingredient is line-itemed and you certainly don’t obtain the pickle…leading to some tab that is typically$1-$2 more. So, what went wrong with Au Bon Pain? In 1999, it went public then got shuffled around to various private equity groups. It certainly hasn’t changed much through the years and hasn’t tried to improve its offerings relative to Panera’s.
Perhaps, because of its success over the years and too little a significant competitor, it hasn’t needed to. But, let’s get real – in a health conscious, quality, value driven economy like the one that we live in – where could you rather opt for lunch?