Over the last six years in metro Toledo, Panera Bread has been a main choice for meals that fresher and tastier than standard fast-food fare but cost less, and provide less service, than traditional sit-down restaurants.
But that "fast casual" dining niche is under attack. The Zoup! Fresh Soup Co. chain entered the market less than a year ago, and Chipotle Mexican Grill, based in Denver, and San Francisco Oven, from Cleveland, arrived in recent months.
Both of the latter plan to add one to two stores this year, and other fast-casual chains, such as Qdoba Mexican Grill, are searching for local sites or franchisees.
"Customers have done a good job letting restaurants know what kind of environments they like to go to when they eat," said Ellen Davis, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation.
"When they go, they like to have an experience, and we see many restaurants providing plush seating, unique lighting, and wireless Internet services. They not only encourage people to come in and eat, but to come in an relax or even get some work done."
Mike Podracky, vice president for General Growth Properties Inc., which is building the Shops at Fallen Timbers mall in Maumee, said demand for fast casual is increasing at its properties. "It serves a niche with people that don't want to go to your typical fast food restaurant or drive-through, but are willing to pay a little more for what they perceive is better fare," he said.
Chipotle opened two area stores since December and plans a third in West Toledo this year. It heavily promotes its use of fresh ingredients.
"Its mantra is 'food with integrity,'•" said spokesman Crickett Karson.
"We use high end pork and chicken that have no growth hormones or antibiotics."
The company is the third-fast-
est-growing fast-casual chain, according to food industry con-
sulting firm Technomic Information Services, of Chicago.
The Fast-casual dining segment has about $11 billion in annual sales in the United States, Technomic estimates.
Panera Bread remains first, but Kevin Lent is challenging it with San Francisco Oven, which opened in December and plans to two more stores this year. Mr. Lent helped bring Panera to Toledo in 1999.
"My friends think I'm crazy to get back into this again," he said, "but there's definitely room for more places in the fast-casual niche in Toledo."
Ms. Davis, of the national trade group, said fast-casual chains face the drawbacks of limited seating and balancing a surge in customers at lunch and dinner while encouraging customers to linger for hours.
"You have a message that they can relax and stay a while, but the difficulty in all of this is encouraging them to relax and provide quick service to customers during the busiest parts of the day," she said.
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