Company News

New Boardman Panera Café Draws Early Lines

BOARDMAN, Ohio – It’s been 20 years since Sam Covelli opened his first Panera Bread bakery-café. Some 300 cafés later and he’s still just as excited about opening his newest at 7121 South Ave.

“I feel like I opened my first store right now,” Covelli said. “I still get nervous every time I open a new store, hoping it does well.”

Tuesday morning’s grand opening of the newly constructed Panera Bread was technically a relocation of that first Panera that Covelli Enterprises opened just down state Route 224 at the Shops at Boardman Park. Covelli, owner and operator of the Warren-based restaurant franchisee, opened that restaurant in 1998 after selling the McDonald’s franchises the family-owned company had operated for decades. The former Boardman location closed three weeks ago.

“I’m not going to lie to you. Whenever you get into a new venture like that it’s scary. It really is,” Covelli said. “You’re taking a risk, but you’ve got to believe in what you know about the restaurant business, that you can take a concept and run with it.”

Today, the relocated Boardman store is one of 315 Panera cafés that Covelli Enterprises operates in six states. The company sold off the six stores it operated in Canada to focus resources on growing the U.S. market, he said.

The store opened at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday. At 10 a.m., a line 30-deep of customers stood outside its doors. As a promotion, one of several marking the opening, the first 500 dine-in customers received free travel cups good for daily refills for the next two weeks at the café.

“I know that there’s been a lot of anticipation for this store,” said Trevor Wesley, general manager. Wesley has managed the Boardman store for three years and been a Panera employee for 11. “We were expecting a big response. This is pretty much right where we were hoping it would be.”

Before his company became a Panera franchisee, Covelli said he saw a need for more of a fast-casual concept.

“People were getting fussier about food. Panera just fit that niche – better food, healthier, different selections of salads,” he said. “At that time, there weren’t many places that even came close to serving the type of menu that we serve.” By the time Panera was successfully opening in its fourth market, Covelli was convinced that the gamble was going to pay off.

The new Boardman location is a first-of-its-kind design, Covelli said. At 4,900 square feet, it is nearly 1,000 square feet larger than the café it replaces and seats 165 patrons.

“I don’t know if the next store is going to be as big,” Covelli said.

Dine-out service has grown since Panera’s opening, just one of the changes the chain has had to navigate. The new stand-alone café has a drive-thru window that the previous café lacked in its strip plaza setting – and it is something Covelli has made a priority.

Drive-thru service accounts for 40% to 50% of Covelli’s Panera business, reported Ashlee Mauti, director of marketing for Covelli Enterprises. That includes the addition of a drive-thru at the Austintown café. Delivery service contributes another 10%, she said.

Other features of the Boardman Panera include touchscreen kiosks to allow customers to order and pay prior to reaching the counter. In addition, Panera customers can place and pay for orders on mobile devices using rapid pickup. These innovations allow the café to put out more product in a shorter period of time to provide quicker service, Covelli said.

“Panera is ahead of the time with technology. That’s a big plus for our entire business,” he said.

The drive-thru and delivery service are “two big additions” that will allow the restaurant to serve the community better, Wesley affirmed. To accommodate the expected increase in business, the Boardman café has increased employment to 68, up from the 36 it employed at the former site. Additions include employees for the drive-thru window and delivery service, and ambassadors to assist patrons with the touchscreen kiosks.

Covelli notes other elements to make the café more welcoming, including lighting enhancements, higher-grade furnishings and more spacious gathering spaces.

The quality of the furnishings was one of the elements Jerry Reedy of Poland noticed while seated with Harold Grace of Struthers and Al Pagano of Poland.

“This is better than my couch at home,” he remarked. He also likes the flow of the restaurant better than the one at the other Boardman Panera on Market Street.

Pagano commented on the “freshness” of the café, and the access to natural light afforded by the windows that surround three of the building’s four walls. “For somebody who comes in to read, everybody loves natural light,” he remarked.

“It’s inviting,” Grace offered. “I can see it in the wintertime being very warm and pleasant.’

Also among the first-day crowd was Dr. Rashid Abdu. “It’s a beautiful facility. It’s the best I’ve ever seen,” he remarked.

Abdu stopped at the store for its opening to get his “choice of bagels and coffee” as well as to see it before the “big crowds” that would arrive toward midday. He returned later in the morning

The surgeon is the founder of the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center, which the Covelli family has generously continued to support through the Panerathon, he said. The Panerathon has raised more than $2.5 million to support the Abdu Center, including $515,000 this year.

Covelli is pleased overall with the support his Paneras in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys receive from customers. Volumes at the Shops at Boardman Park Panera were strong from its first day, he said.

“We do good volumes. It makes me feel good,” he said. “This is my home base.”

Pictured: Dr. Rashid Abdu joins Sam Covelli to celebrate the opening of the new Boardman Panera Bread bakery-cafe.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.