In a city where eating local is close to a religion, the opening of Vermont's first Panera bakery-café this morning — smack in the midst of Church Street — probably evoked something close to a collective groan.
At least, you might like to think so. By 11 a.m., though, dozens of people had already made their way across an outdoor patio festooned with balloons, past a clutch of managers and a flickering gas fireplace, to form a line at the bakery counter. Judging from the casual certainty with which some ordered their choices — a cinnamon-crumb coffee cake, for instance, or a spaceship-shaped pumpkin "muffie" — many Burlingtonians are pretty familiar with the chain already. They may know it either from traveling or from having lived in some other American exurb where Panera is a popular — and sometimes the only — place to fortify oneself with "quick-casual" fare while feeding off free Wi-Fi.
In the Upper Valley, for instance, practically every coffee shop (including those in Hanover, N.H., the most uncollegiate of college towns) closes by 6 p.m, rendering Panera the only place to nurse coffee and your computer after dusk. It's always bustling.
Vermont's first Panera was one of three to open today (the other two were in Syracuse, N.Y., and California). '"It seems strange we were never in Vermont before,” says district manager David Almond, who moved here to help open the store and has had fun exploring local restaurants with his wife, Julie. “[The chain] sells a lot of Vermont products.” Including, he says, the Vermont white cheddar atop Panera's mac-and-cheese, though neither he nor a person at corporate HQ knew specifically where that cheese comes from.
The arrival of the 120-seat Church Street café enabled some longtime Panera employees to transfer back their home turf, adds Almond. How does he think the chain’s baked goods will fare in the bustling local baking scene? “I think we’ll fit in well. Plus, we’ve given 60 people jobs," he says.
The chain has nearly 1500 locations in 41 states and is undergoing a seemingly frenetic expansion toward its stated mission of placing "a loaf of bread in every arm." Another location is under construction in Rutland, due to open late this year or early next. Whether you like it or not, Panera is here to stay.