panera_ 070

Toasty warm, buttered, soft or freshly baked—even descriptions of our most ancient staple inspire images of comfort. Perhaps no other food says ‘home’ like bread, and for many St. Louisans, a familiar sign conveys the same comfortable message.

“It’s remarkable! We see it on social media sites, or read it in emails: Well, I know I’m back in St. Louis when the sign says ‘St. Louis Bread Company,’ and not Panera,” says Don Hutcheson, Panera’s joint venture area director. “There’s such a strong sense of community association with St. Louisans and the cafés—we’ve become a part of people’s lives.”

Since the first bakery-café opened in Kirkwood in 1987, ‘the Breadco’ has become a gathering place in neighborhoods throughout St. Louis, Hutcheson notes. “On Saturday mornings, especially, you’ll see people come in and visit with friends and neighbors, in good times and bad. Remember when we had those terrible ice storms awhile ago? People flocked to Breadco as a haven. That’s why we remained open throughout the storms, if at all possible, because people told us they needed that sense of security and familiarity.” It’s more than a home-away-from-home for the regulars, who sometimes inquire about duplicating the cozy atmosphere. “You can’t imagine how often I get asked, Hey, where can I find this color? Those sconces?We get so many compliments on our inviting and friendly environment.”

The newest St. Louis Bread Co. café debuts in early November at Plaza Frontenac, and will incorporate several first-ever elements. “It will have all the favorite touches, like a raised fireplace and lots of space for people to gather and talk,” says Hutcheson. “But it also will have a beautiful patio and other elements the other cafés don’t have. We’re very excited about it!”

The Frontenac café will be the 48th Metro St. Louis location, but Hutcheson says the company’s visibility in the community is measured by more than just the number of restaurants. “Our mission is to have a community connection, not just a presence, and we’ve found some wonderful avenues to accomplish this,” he says. “For example, since 1990, we’ve partnered with Operation Food Search through our Operation Dough- Nation program, and our Community Breadbox, with the help of our customers, raised more than $65,000 last year to help those in need.”

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the company’s Pink Ribbon Bagel event benefitting the Susan G. Komen Foundation. “This is very special! Back in 2001, one of our franchise owners, cancer survivor Sue Stees, had the idea to make a bagel shaped like a ribbon. We added cranberry and cherry bits, and vanilla chips, and that’s how the pink ribbon bagel came to be. Everybody loves it and looks forward to it every year.”

Creativity is encouraged from customers, as well, with the annual St. Louis Sandwich Showdown contest. “It just kicked off Aug.15 and it’s going to be big this year!” Hutcheson exclaims. “We’re going to have VIP judges and guests, and invitation-only events for some of our My Panera card customers. There’s lots of great prizes, and for the winner, the fun of having your sandwich up on the menu in all 48 cafés!”