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Panera Bread opened its doors Wednesday in The Crossings of Decatur.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Panera Bread opened its doors Wednesday in The Crossings of Decatur.

Panera Bread opens in Decatur
10th store in state offers 'quick-casual' dining experience

By Catherine Godbey
cgodbey@decaturdaily.com 340-2441

A crowded parking lot and the aroma of fresh-baked bread signaled the opening of Panera Bread at The Crossings of Decatur on Wednesday.

What attracted the crowd that continuously streamed through Panera Bread?

"Bakery buzzing," answered Brent James, marketing manager for Alabama Panera Bread restaurants. "We did a lot of 'bakery buzzing' at local businesses before we even opened the doors and tried to create awareness about Panera's opening to get people to try out our food."

As the line of people waiting for service extended to seven and backed up at the door, James added, "this is the slowest it has been all day."

Attracting customers

To succeed in an already bustling food arena, which features fast food and full-service restaurants lining the Beltline and Sixth Avenue, James is relying on Panera's approach to attract customers.

The 10th Panera location in Alabama represents the expanding popularity of the "quick-casual" genre.

"We are not a full-service restaurant but we offer a warm atmosphere and a place for people who need to get in and out for lunch without fighting the long lines," James said.

Bruce Lemon, a joint venture partner with Panera, highlighted the need for word-of-mouth to establish Panera's presence in Decatur.

"Panera Bread is relatively new in this region so we've got to create brand recognition," Lemon explained.

For Lemon, the word-of-mouth advertising sat 10-feet away in Jim and Gertrude Hilton, a couple who migrated to Decatur from Illinois.

"We used to eat at Panera all the time; the food is absolutely delicious," Gertrude Hilton said. "We will definitely come back."

Once customers dine at Panera, Lemon believes the quality of the food will entice them to return.

"Anyone can buy the same meat and cheese I buy," Lemon said, "but no one can make the same bread we make, and a sandwich is all about the bread."

Spanish for "breadbasket," Panera's popularity centers around its artisan and specialty bakery products.

Showcased in glass cases and display racks, the cafe's breads range from tomato basil and focaccia loaves to the cinnamon crumb bagel.

Lemon expects Decatur's Panera to rival the success of the other Alabama-based Panera cafes.

"This is a happening area and this development is a good fit for our company," Lemon said. "Target and Panera tend to share similar customers, and I think we will compliment one another."

Along with customers from Target, Gary Godin, general manager of Panera, is relying on Panera's proximity to Interstate 65 and U.S. 31 to appeal to passing motorists.

"There were a lot of travelers stopping by before we were open for business," Godin said. "They were trying to get in while the doors were locked."

Panera's doors are now open.

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