An insider's view of the Connecticut dining scene
Jul 23, 2014
03:28 PM
The Connecticut Table

New Haven Is the Testing Ground for Delicious Advances at Panera Bread

New Haven Is the Testing Ground for Delicious Advances at Panera Bread

Panera Bread

Head Baker Tom Gumpel with Baker Brenda Mcgowan in Panera's Small Batch Bakery in New Haven.

Centrally located in downtown New Haven, the Panera Bread on Chapel Street is a go-to stop for hungry Yale University students, workers on their lunch breaks and visitors to the Elm City looking for quality food prepared with fresh ingredients, served in a familiar environment and ready quickly—essentially more healthy "fast food" done right.

You may associate Panera with its soups, salads and sandwiches—available individually or in "you pick two" combinations with smaller portions of each—but you shouldn’t forget what the company was built on, its bread.

Panera Bread is first and foremost a bakery that offers quality breads and pastries throughout the day. In opening the New Haven location, Panera Head Baker Tom Gumpel (above) wanted to reinvigorate the company’s emphasis on baking.

The Chapel Street Panera contains the growing national company’s first test bakery, where new recipes are tried and old favorites are reimagined.

The words “Small Batch Bakery” hover over the large glass windows that offer a peek into the space from the street. Once you're inside, though, you may be hard pressed to find the kitchen. The transition from the typical Panera bakery-café to test bakery is so seamless that it’s nearly unnoticeable.

The sprawling counter where customers are accustomed to placing their orders extends along the right wall to the front windows, and is topped with electric mixers and baking sheets. Trays of fresh pastries are stacked along the front windows, providing what is perhaps the most telling sign that something is different in this cafe; the bakery runs all day long, offering a constant scent of fresh baked bread.  

The small batch bakery (below) opened a year ago, but it’s an idea that has been in the back of Gumpel’s mind for years. It is part of the company’s evolution and continued investment in baking innovation.

“I’ve always wanted to push towards this,” he says. “[I wanted to] rethink the way items are created in a way the customer sees and smells it occurring.”

“In a world of mass production, not that we’re not in that, but there’s a disservice to baking quality,” Gumpel continues. “We’re mixing from dry right here. It’s what your mom or grandma [would do].”

The test bakery is an evolution of the company’s typical testing process. For years, Panera has been developing and testing recipes in laboratories across the country, and it’s been working relatively well. The one thing these labs were lacking, though, was customers.

“For years we’d bake products and have customers fill out surveys, and then decide to go into a test process,” explains Gumpel.

The bakers would take over the kitchen of an operational Panera during lunch hour in order to get customers' feedback. Gumpel thought that process could be streamlined by working a bakery into the layout of a restaurant, using the regular customers are test subjects.

(Director of Bakery Development Eric Kastel in the test bakery, right.)

With the St. Louis, Missouri, based chain having more than 1,800 bakery-cafes across the United States and in Canada, New Haven may seem like an unusual choice for the test kitchen, but it made perfect sense to Gumpel.

Considering all of the businesses located in and around downtown, the students attending Yale and others who are drawn to New Haven's cultural and lifestyle amenties, there’s a consistent built-in customer base, and therefore, a steady supply of taste-testers.

“There’s an infrastructure in New Haven,” says Gumpel. “There are people here all the time…Where rubber hits the road is getting food into mouths.”

There are two levels of testing—screening and preferencing. Screening involves giving customers samples and asking, “How do you like this?” Preferencing takes the test one step further by asking, “How do you like this compared with that?”

(Panera's waffle fries and chocolate covered waffle, left.)

Items can be in the testing phase for a year or more before making it onto an official menu, like the new flatbread sandwiches introduced in May, which spent more than a year in test. The naan-style sandwiches were inspired by the travels of Gumpel and Panera’s Head Chef Dan Kish. The flatbreads are baked daily in Panera bakeries.

New Haven patrons get a front row seat for the experimentation process. Come in for lunch and you may be asked to sample some baked goods and give your opinions (like I was asked to try the chocolate orange scones, below, on a recent visit.)

The test kitchen is not only responsible for offering some delicious additions to the Panera menu. Changes on staffing, signage and uniforms have also come out of the New Haven location to be implemented in bakery-cafés across the country.

The restaurant’s menus, which hang behind the front counter, are rotated to display breakfast and lunch options and the bakers wear crisp grey chef's coats. Flatware, plate changes and sound system upgrades are also being exported to other locations.

"We distill what works here and move it [to other stores]," says Gumpel. In a release he adds, "Panera began with bread. It's our passion, soul and expertise. Our test bakery is an example of our continued focus on our identity as bakers, as we push ourselves to keep learning how best to lay out, staff and operate our bakeries." 

For more information on Panera Bread, visit the website at panerabread.com. For a sneak peek on what Panera's bakers are thinking and what may be coming to the menu nationwide, seek out the New Haven Panera on Chapel Street.

Contact me by email at khartman@connecticutmag.com and follow me on Twitter, and connect with Connecticut Magazine on Twitter, on Facebook and on Google +

New Haven Is the Testing Ground for Delicious Advances at Panera Bread

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