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
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
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
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
consultant raises her voice to declare: "This is just what
needed!" Further down the line, a somewhat more harried early
customer, pannini sandwich in hand, leans toward a prep cook.
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
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
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
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,
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
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
with dining, Panera is wired. Signs indicate that customers are
to plug their laptops into wall outlets, though few take the cafe
up on the offer, perhaps providing a barometer of the public’s
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
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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