Corrections or additions?

These articles by Kathleen McGinn Spring were prepared for the

May 2, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New Lunch Choice: Panera

Just when you thought Princeton could not possibly

absorb

even one more coffee house, in swings Panera, coffee counter front

and center, drawing crowds of a magnitude that clearly indicates there

is indeed room for a new contender. Panera, with its full menu and

abundance of seating in a most attractive space at 136 Nassau Street,

has obviously found a niche.

This is one of the few places in or around town where groups —

no matter how large — can order, eat while sitting, and get back

to their desks in under an hour. For while takeout places, many with

exceptional fare, abound downtown, they force workers back to their

desk to eat. And while Princeton is rich in restaurants with full

wait staffs, getting in and out quickly can be difficult, especially

when a crowd is ordering.

Panera has come to town as part of the ambitious business plan of

Jim Nawn and Willy Nicolini, doing business as the Fenwick Group.

The partners, who moved their headquarters from Palmer Square to the

rear of this restaurant earlier this year, are planning to turn the

northern half of New Jersey into Panera country. They own the right

to open 40 of the franchises from Newark to Trenton. So far, they

have planted Paneras in West Orange, Paramus, Westfield, Wayne, and

Ramsey. Among the stores due to open soon is one in Nassau Park

Pavilion,

otherwise known as the Wal-Mart shopping center, and another on Route

130 near New Brunswick.

The chain began its corporate life as the St. Louis Bread Company,

a name still used by a handful of its stores. In 1993, Au Bon Pain,

a bakery familiar to Manhattan commuters, purchased it, and changed

the name to Panera. Then, in 1999, Au Bon Pain was sold off, but the

parent company held onto Panera, which is growing fast. More than

80 of the casual dining spots opened last year, and the chain now

has about 250 outlets around the country.

Nawn, a Princeton resident, left Astra, a Swedish pharmaceutical

company,

to take a crack at running his own business. Nicolini had worked for

Au Bon Pain for nine years.

A snapshot of the Nassau Street restaurant on a recent day captures

Panera’s appeal, and turns up some of its youthful foibles, as well.

Standing in the jostling crowd at Panera’s service counter, a

financial

consultant raises her voice to declare: "This is just what

Princeton

needed!" Further down the line, a somewhat more harried early

customer, pannini sandwich in hand, leans toward a prep cook.

"There’s

no bacon in my Bacon Turkey Bravo!" he shouts.

Six weeks after its grand opening, the Nassau Street

cafe is still jam packed with lunching office workers from way before

noon through early afternoon. Long windows and large doors, propped

open in warm weather, give the place the wide-open feel of a sidewalk

cafe in SoHo. Inside, peaches and tans create a sunny look, and a

series of seating areas, some with booths, some with tables, easily

accommodate the solitary lunch hour worker with a newspaper as well

as groups looking for a congenial setting in which to exchange office

gossip.

But while Panera’s format and dining space are ideal for the lunch

hour crowd, its food has weaknesses, and its service, bordering on

the comically chaotic in early weeks, is uneven. Speed is achieved

by narrowing choice, and subverted somewhat by a staff still learning

its paces.

No fewer than five soups are featured every day, and can be ordered

in sourdough bowls. There are 15 specialty sandwiches, including three

pannini sandwiches, and five salads. This is not a place to order

up, say, a roast beef on rye, very rare, Russian dressing, heavy on

the pepper, extra pickle. Sandwich formulas are fixed. If you want

roast beef, it’s Asiago Roast Beef, described as "oven-roasted

beef, smoked cheddar, leaf lettuce, tomato, red onion, and our creamy

horseradish sauce, on an Asiago Cheese Mini Baguette." Customers

get numbers after ordering and after a couple of minutes walk up to

the counter to pick up lunch, which is served on a large, round black

plastic tray.

Even those who make no waves, not trying, for instance, to substitute

mustard for creamy horseradish, may wait in vain to hear their number,

or may find ingredients missing, or mismatched. Generally, however,

the problem is straightened out quickly.

Prices run from $2.99 for a bowl of soup to $6.45 for an Italian Combo

Sandwich ("roast beef, turkey, ham, salami, provel cheese,

peperoncini,

lettuce, tomato, and our special sauce"). Most salad choices are

$4.75. For $5.89, customers can put together a combination of any

half sandwich and half order of salad, or a soup and either item.

In addition to its soup and sandwich menu, Panera sports a full bakery

and a coffee bar. There is no minimum, and no tipping — not even

a "tips are gratefully accepted" jar of any sort. Generously,

the new dining spot does not impose a minimum, and encourages

loitering

with a newspaper rack and a trio of leather chairs in the window.

Like its predecessors in the space, Totally Wired and then Verdge

Technology Diner, restaurants that attempted to combine Internet

surfing

with dining, Panera is wired. Signs indicate that customers are

welcome

to plug their laptops into wall outlets, though few take the cafe

up on the offer, perhaps providing a barometer of the public’s

interest

in typing while eating.

It’s not easy access to 600 zillion Internet sites that we want during

our mid-day work break, Panera says. The happy din rising from every

corner of this new dining spot throughout the lunch hour declares

that the novelty of plugging into a wall in a public place passed

oh so quickly. What we crave, the crowds lining up at Panera say,

is a welcoming spot where we can while away the lunch hour paging

through a newspaper or chatting with friends.

— Kathleen McGinn Spring

Panera Bread, 136 Nassau Street, Princeton 08542.

609-688-1692; fax, 609-688-1742. Open Monday through Thursday, 6 a.m.

to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m.

to 9 p.m. Home page: www.paneranj.com.


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