Panera Bread's main focus is its bread, which is the basis for sandwiches, bowls for soups and sides for salads.
Au Bon Pain's nutrition kiosk allows customers to find the ingredients and nutritional information for all of the company's products.
Whoever said that you can't win 'em all? Certainly not any of the operators in the rapidly growing bakery café foodservice segment who are betting heavily on strategies based on freshness and flexibility to win over consumers across all demographics and day parts.
"The bakery café has become the 'third place' for many people," says Gary Belida, president of restaurant operations of the 16-unit San Marcos, Californiabased Champagne French Bakery Café chain. He is referring to the term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book, The Great Good Place.
According to Oldenburg, third places are the informal public gathering spots, such as cafÈs, coffee shops, recreation centers, beauty parlors, general stores or bars, where people go to relax and socialize. Because they provide respite from the demands of home and work (the "first" and "second" places), these third places are essential to the health and well being of individuals and communities.
"Consumers today are burned out on traditional fast food with the driving factors being speed and price; they've graduated from preprocessed and prepackaged," says Gary Bryant, president of Bear Rock CafÈ, a Cary, North Carolina-based chain with 29 mountain cabin-inspired locations in eight states. "Now they're looking for fresh, healthy choices in an environment that can still give them quick service, but, at the same time, provide a comfortable place to get away from the office traffic, telephone and kids."
Champagne's Belida believes that bakery cafÈs are the neighborhood coffee shops of the 21st century that have evolved to meet the specific lifestyle needs and tastes of consumers.
"The real difference between the two is the size and scope," he says. "A coffee shop is traditionally pretty small, making it a good place to come in and get a cup and a muffin or Danish to go or sit down with a newspaper or sit and chat with a friend for a brief stay."
Bakery cafés' comfortable seating, warm lighting and displays of breads, pastries and other items invite customers to linger, whether they are alone, with business colleagues or with friends, Belida notes. The wide variety of fresh items coming out of the oven throughout the day also gives the menu the versatility to offer meals and snacks that include and transcend traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner day parts.
"We're the cup of coffee and croissant in the morning, the everybody-can-get-exactly-what-they-want business or social lunch meeting, the after-school cookie treat for moms and kids, the fresh loaf of bread on the way home from work, the quick bite before the movie and the dessert after," Belida says.
On-premise baking makes a big difference in product freshness, he emphasizes. "We used to bake our breads in our commissary and truck them to our stores, but we didn't like the idea that it could be as much as 12 to 14 hours before our customers actually ate them," he says. "Par-baking the bread at the commissary and finishing it at the stores is much more in keeping with our style, and the aroma is wonderful."
Bakery cafés rooted in bread
At Richmond, Missouri-based Panera Bread, the entire concept is rooted in the bread, says Scott Davis, company chief concept officer. Oven-fresh loaves are the basis for a variety of sandwiches, the bowl for soups and the side for salads.
Panera operates 15 "fresh dough facilities" to prepare products for proofing and bake off at the company's more than 600 stores in 37 states. Each Panera bakery cafÈ has a stone deck steam injected oven and large double rack convection oven. Some of the stores also are experimenting with mixing dough on site.
A central commissary also allows the Dallas, Texasbased Corner Bakery Café to do a large amount of baking in its 90 stores in nine states, says Nancy Hampton, the company's vice president of marketing.
"When the bread is exceptionally good, panini can be as satisfying for a casual dinner as they are for lunch," Hampton observes. "Sweets are also popular throughout the day, so we sell more decadent desserts than you can shake a stick at."
Among the most addictive, she says, are the company's signature cinnamon cream cakes. "Customers love them for breakfast, brunch or snacks, and we sell them prepackaged in medium and large sizes for grab-and-go or hostess gift giving." A "sweet crisp" made from very thin pieces of raisin pecan bread toasted and topped with butter and sugar also sells well on the breakfast menu and is prepackaged to go.
The variety of fresh products that Bear Rock Café generates from the baking areas located in each of its units makes for a menu that is equally appealing to men and women, with and without families, Bryant notes.
"We can do hearty 'mountain-stuffed' sandwiches on hearty asiago focaccia and crispy ciabatta, homemade croutons that really stand out in a salad and big, warm chewy cookies," he says. "There is something for everyone."
Croissants are what keep many customers coming back to Au Bon Pain's more than 230 bakery cafes in the United States, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, says Jim Fisher, vice president of marketing for the Boston, Massachusetts-based chain. And croissants are what they get¯plain or filled with sweet cheese, almond, chocolate, cinnamon raisin, raspberry cheese or apple.
In response to guests' requests for additional menu offerings during the past two years, Au Bon Pain also has introduced 11 new salads and 14 new sandwiches on rosemary focaccia, baguettes, braided rolls, multi-grain, tomato herb, country white and other bread and roll varieties. The doughs are produced at the company's commissary and are proofed and baked on-site in forced hot air convection ovens.
Along with the new menu offerings, Au Bon Pain also began a major remodeling of its bakery café furnishings, lighting and seating to create a more energetic marketplace and more third-place friendly environment. To date, customer return frequency rates have risen by at least 10 percent, Fisher reports.
The menu flexibility of on-premise baking allows Atlanta Bread, based in Smyrna, Ga., to create seasonally themed promotions showcasing a variety of products throughout the year. For this spring's Peach Persuasion promotion, for example, the menu includes peach muffins, Danish, breads and flavored ice tea, notes Jerry Couvaras, president and C.E.O. of the 160-unit chain.
Champagne French Bakery Café changes its entire menu twice a year, Belida says. But, a few permanent top sellers include the signature baguette, Princess Cake ( layers of milk chocolate mousse and praline on a thin layer of almond cake, all topped with a dark chocolate ganache) sold whole and by the slice, and the jesuite (a puff pastry filled with vanilla custard, topped with meringue, almonds and confectioners' sugar).
Meeting consumer needs
Operators such as Atlanta Bread, Au Bon Pain and Bear Rock are in the midst of developing, testing and/or introducing products targeted to consumers with particular dietary needs or restrictions. Atlanta Bread is preparing to add low carb and whole grain breads and bagels to its offerings, according to Couvaras.
Au Bon Pain introduced a line of muffins with no trans-fat last fall. "Since then our muffin sales have increased 20 percent. That's even better than we had predicted," Fisher says. "We've just made all of our bagels trans-fat-free."
But, he continues, one of Au Bon Pain's most innovative products is not even edible. "It's our nutritional kiosk, with a touch screen that can be used to display all of the ingredients of each food product along with its protein, fiber, sodium, carb, cholesterol and calorie content," he explains.
Customers enter in their specific nutritional requirements, and the computer selects the top menu selections that meet those needs.
"It's all about giving the customer choices," Fisher adds.
With so many companies opening bakery cafes, this segment will become overpopulated, Champagne's Belida cautions. "The winners will be those who produce the most unique foods in the widest variety. And, it is just as important that they do it fresh and fast."