February 7, 2014

Panera breaks bread in Merced

Panera Bread opened its doors in Merced on Friday. It’s the first of several new businesses that will open in town early this year, and may be a sign of an improving economy. Next on the list is Chipotle Mexican Grill, followed by Harbor Freight Tools.

If a drive-thru line that stretched around the building and a bustling front counter during a rainy Friday is any sign, Panera Bread’s Merced location had a good first day.

Zoheb Mohammed, a UC Merced student, made a point to visit the cafe-style eatery on its first day in town. The environmental engineering major picked up a Frontega chicken panini for lunch.

“It’s good, in Merced especially, just to have some more variety,” the 21-year-old said.

Mohammed, originally from Los Angeles, said he’s no stranger to Panera, so he was happy to see the sign this week announcing its opening day.

The cafe-style eatery opened its 4,200-square-foot location Friday morning on R Street, just off W. Olive Avenue. Panera shares what used to be a Blockbuster Video with two other spaces: Chipotle Mexican Grill and an 800-square-foot retail space without an identified tenant.

Panera hired and trained about 50 employees before Friday’s opening, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Wren.

Along with sandwiches, salads, pasta and soups, Panera sells baked goods like pastries, bread and bagels. Those baked goods are what brought Mickie Perkins, 36, of Los Banos into the eatery on its opening day.

“I like their fresh bread,” she said. “It’s good. It’s fresh. It’s not super expensive.”

Perkins said she plans to stop by Panera whenever she’s in Merced to run errands, as she was Friday. She left with a bag full of bagels – some covered in cinnamon and others with jalapenos and cheese.

City leaders are predicting a year of improvement in Merced’s economy. Panera is the latest and most visible sign of new businesses looking to set up in town.

Another new business to town, Harbor Freight Tools, is on pace to open in the shopping center near Hobby Lobby by May, according to building owner Dion Campisi.

He said Harbor Freight, which sells industrial tools and supplies, will fill a 12,198-square-foot space at 1330 Olivewood Drive.

And a few doors down from Panera will be the 2,000-square-foot Chipotle Mexican Grill. That restaurant has a tentative opening date of March 6, according to spokeswoman Danielle Winslow.

City staff say they have made an effort to find businesses that appeal to the young crowd at UC Merced. With his chicken sandwich in hand, Mohammed said he’s waiting on some of those additions.

“Looking forward to Chipotle,” he said with a smile.

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