The sign that says Panera Bread outside the Church Street bakery in New Haven, Connecticut, is relatively small, and if you don’t look up when you walk in, you might just miss it and think that you walked into the wrong store. This is because the inside of the store doesn’t look like the rest of the Panera Breads that you’ve seen and it has lots of very unique design elements that went into it, right down to the uniforms that the staff wear. It is their test bakery, the brain child of Panera’s head baker Tom Gumpel, where Panera is actively testing new flavors, new recipes and even whole new ways of serving up their goodies.
I recently had the opportunity to spend the day at the bakery with a few of my good food blogging friends to check out the concept first hand, do a little baking and taste test some of their latest creations. The store is centered around the idea that baked goods should be baked fresh at certain times of the day. For instance, you’ll see croissants only baked in the mornings and huge soft pretzels served with a couple of house-made dipping sauces on display in the afternoon. All the baking is done in sight of the customers, thanks to a couple of large windows that allow guests to see back into the kitchen and a beautiful workstation that is set out next to the pastry cases where dough is rolled, shaped and baked in the front of the house. This format is different than many other Panera locations, where much of the baking is done overnight when customers aren’t in the stores, and it means that you are getting goodies that are as fresh as possible.
The idea is that the test bakery – named Small Batch, for the small batches that are baked fresh throughout the day – will give customers a different, more artisanal experience than they would get at a regular Panera bread (or another bakery chain). Since everything is baked in such small batches, it also gives bakers the freedom to change things up quickly to try new flavors out. Leftover pineapple? Put them in a muffin tin, mix up some muffin batter and bake some pineapple upside down cakes. See how the customers react to them. Just like at a smaller, artisanal bakery, customers can look forward to trying new and unexpected treats when they come in, not just the same standard menu.
That said, there are still Panera favorites – like soups and sandwiches on the menu – but I suspect that most people end up buying more than they came in for simply because they don’t know what they’ll find when they walk in. The mornings are full of pastries, scones, cinnamon buns and almond croissants. The afternoons feature molten chocolate cakes, liege waffles and bread pudding that is actually baked with the leftover pastries – everything from croissants to brownies – from the day before.
The Small Batch store is delicious and is well worth visiting if you happen to be passing through New Haven anytime soon, but that is the only place that you are going to be able to have the full Small Batch experience for now. Ideas that are tested out at the store – such as having bakers working at the front of the store to engage with customers more – will be rolled out to other locations (some innovations and products will be launched all at once, while others will be more gradual), but there aren’t plans to replicate the bakery anywhere else just yet. I know that I’m campaigning for the large soft pretzels and the liege to get a bigger launch – and I suspect that everyone else who has stopped in to the store has their favorites, too.
Panera Bread Small Batch Bakery
1060 Chapel St
New Haven, CT 06510