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America's Largest Bakery Cafe Chain Is Planning to Open Much Smaller Restaurants Across the Country

These nimble locations will debut a sleek new look.

The suburbs have long been Panera's bread and butter. Most of the chain's locations are typified by large cozy spaces with fireplaces and pushing 4,000 square feet. The casual stores are designed for customers to stay awhile—it isn't uncommon to see an office-less worker typing away in the corner.

In big cities, however, Panera has not seen this concept work. According to Fast Company, only 100 of the chain's 2,200 locations are in metropolitan areas, but the company is making strides to change that by opening smaller, leaner locations.

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The company is testing these new concept restaurants in New York City. The first of the smaller restaurants is opening its doors in the Hearst Building today. The unique location will be half the size of a regular Panera and feature limited counter seating instead of cozy nooks and booths. A second small location, dubbed Panera to Go, is slated to open next month in Union Square. It will forego seating altogether, reinforcing the chain's attempt to attract more customers on the go.

Eduardo Luz, Panera's Chief Brand & Concept Officer, credited the success of the mobile app with fueling the idea for this smaller concept growth. Despite the comfy, welcoming dining rooms, digital sales now make up half of the purchases, with customers increasingly opting for rapid pick-up, contactless dine-in, and delivery.

The company is also planning to "elevate" its urban restaurant design, stepping away from the homey, bakery feel for a "more streamlined" design with modern art, wood paneling, and an updated color palate.

Panera is betting that the convenience of ordering and proximity to offices and colleges will boost sales to the smaller spots. If these test spots prove profitable, Panera plans to expand them into more cities next year, along with new spots in hospitals and universities. The chain is hoping, according to Luz, to "bring Panera anywhere from suburban cafes with double drive-thrus, to a digital-only Panera To Go and everything in between."

Panera is no newcomer to different concepts, being one of the first chains to adopt the new trendy kiosks for contactless ordering. It's also dabbled with artificial intelligence ordering and an automated coffee brewing system. The company's willingness to experiment and adapt seems to be working as it is now the tenth-largest restaurant chain in the U.S. and appears to only be expanding.

Meaghan Cameron
Meaghan Cameron is Deputy Editor of Restaurants at Eat This, Not That! Read more about Meaghan