Most restaurants try to give things away to customers when they open, but Ann Arbor’s fourth Panera, when it opened the last week of September in Upland Green on Plymouth, was taking—asking customers to donate nonperishables to Food Gatherers in return for a free cup of coffee.
This was not a onetime PR gambit. Tony Sharkas, the new store’s manager, says Panera always has strong local connections with “churches, homeless shelters, or food banks. Because we don’t put any preservatives in our baked goods, they’re best consumed the day they’re made.” Food Gatherers executive director Eileen Spring confirms that Panera stores “both locally and nationally have done much to raise money and raise awareness of hunger issues.”
Panera began as the St. Louis Bread Company in the early 1980s, and its earthy, crusty loaves ($3–$8) are still the core product. But mainly Panera is a casual restaurant, and Sharkas says its main competitors are Applebee’s and Chili’s, which are a step up from Panera in price but offer table service and alcohol.
The menu is ultracasual, but with yuppie class: Sharkas is partial to a breakfast sandwich involving ciabatta bread, eggs, white cheddar cheese, and smoked apple-wood bacon done on a panini press for about $3, while assistant manager Carrie Vaquera brushed crumbs of her favorite Frontega smoked chicken panini off her chest while she talked.
Panera is the first business to open at Upland Green, the long delayed condo-¬retail development on the site of the old Diehl’s junkyard. But Sharkas says Qdoba is coming soon: “I also heard something about an ice cream, yogurt, or smoothie place, and a spicy Thai restaurant.”
Panera Bread, 1773 Plymouth Road (Upland Green), 332–6279. Mon.–Sat. 6 a.m.–
9 p.m., Sun. 7 a.m.–8 p.m. panerabread.com.