Panera Bread has opened on Elmwood Avenue, much to the happiness and displeasure of all. There are those who didn’t want to see a Panera on the street due to the “chain” factor of the business. But others embraced the idea knowing that Panera would be displacing another chain (Blockbuster)… and as far as I can remember Blockbuster was not only an eyesore on the street, it was also leach that never gave back to the community throughout all of the years that we (as a community) fought to bring the street back to life.
Panera Bread is different, from what I can tell. One can already see the life that it has added to Elmwood, with patios that open to an indoor/outdoor seating area, creating a vibrancy unlike anything this building has ever seen. The addition of the patio creates a connective sea of outdoor seating all the way to Cleveland Avenue. Even Blue Fin got its act together in anticipation of the Panera opening (they added a patio just days ago). Suffice to say, I like what I’m seeing on this block… the only thing that could be better would be an infill project in the Benchmark parking lot across the street, but I digress.
Another thing that surprised me about Panera (other than the glassed-in, practical indoor/outdoor seating arrangement) was the massive size of the café/restaurant. It extends back towards the end of the parking lot, seating upwards of 120 people (according to Panera Bread Joint Venture Partner Eric Thein). I introduced myself to Eric during my visit and congratulated him on the opening. I told Eric that I had received an email from Mike Ciancio who had worked for Panera for the past 6.5 years, and his manager Sonia Velazquez. The two wanted to pass along a message to me/Buffalo Rising readers regarding the opening of Panera on Elmwood. See here:
We have been talking with the locals and have been getting great feedback. We have also gotten some negative comments, but we are here to add to the community. We want to be part of the Elmwood district and help form the future. Lots of people don’t know that we donate all of our leftover food to local charities and food banks every single night. We have brought 60 more jobs to the area, and have cleaned up and set a higher bar for business surrounding us. Yesterday we walked house to house on the surrounding blocks and gave out a “green” reusable Panera Bread shopping bag filled with some of our chocolate chip cookies to kind of welcome ourselves. We also went to all of our neighboring business with the same bags and a few extra cookies and some catering menus. Before we opened to the public, we pulled people off of the street for about an hour during lunch and dinner, and gave out free food while training our new employees. We’re not here to hurt any business in the area, we respect everyone around us, and I think a few people might be getting the wrong impression [we're here to show them that's not the case]. Hope to see you soon.
As far as I’m concerned, Panera Bread is like “night and day” compared to what we were stuck with before they moved into the neighborhood. I remember the old battle when Starbuck’s was moving into the neighborhood – you would have thought that it was the end of the world. To have a healthy mix of anchor chains and small businesses is… well… healthy. I’m still going to support places like Five Points Bakery and Caffé Aroma on a regular basis. But there are others who will come into the city because a familiar eatery like Panera is now open. Hopefully those people will spend some quality time on the street and rediscover a city that they swore off years ago.
Take a look at the picture above and think back to a time when the view would have looked onto what was then known as “Needle Park”. My how things have changed.