Cape Gazette
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The Business of Eating

An everyday oasis of intense training and happy customers

By Bob Yesbek | Apr 22, 2014
Photo by: Bob Yesbek Training specialist manager Brooke Wells makes sure new employees at Panera are ready for the big-time.

In my former life in Thunderdome (well, suburban Washington, D.C.), Panera Bread was one of my favorite go-to spots for a quick lunch. The food was reliable, the service was efficient, and by the time I picked out the perfect table, my order was ready. Of course I love the variety of lunch spots here at the beach, but I have to admit to doing a little private Snoopy dance when Panera opened on Coastal Highway.

Obviously I was not alone (well, maybe I was when it came to the Snoopy dance), because it’s a rare moment when there isn’t a line at the Rehoboth Beach Panera. Apparently they’re doing something right. And one of the things they’re doing right is keeping a close eye on service and food preparation. There are three methods that successful companies employ to make those things go smoothly: training, training and training. (In that order.) To that end, our Panera Bread is fortunate to have longtime local chef, caterer and restaurateur Brooke Wells as its training specialist manager. Every Panera has a management-level person who is responsible for the training of new hires and maintaining it over time. Brooke opened the local Panera as assistant manager and was promoted into the training specialist position.

Brooke’s story is like so many here in Rehoboth. She worked in Maryland; battling the Beltway traffic as a customer service manager for several large companies, including MCI and Saks Fifth Avenue. But she dreamed of bringing up her kids in a small-town atmosphere. So 16 years ago the single mother of three pulled up stakes and moved here, landing her first restaurant gig at Smitty McGee’s in Fenwick (some of the best wings at the beach, by the way). That was followed by various catering jobs for Bear Trap Dunes and the executive chef position at Kings Creek Country Club, where she worked for about a year and a half.

Yearning for more time with her kids, she took a job cooking at Sydney’s in downtown Rehoboth, followed by the GM position at the long-gone M. Gallucio’s in Lewes. She eventually brought her favorite recipes to the Maggio-Shields Real Estate Café in First Street Station before she worked as a chef for Matt Haley’s Plate Catering.

In her search for more predictable hours, Brooke became GM at the Milford Bob Evans until she was approached by a recruiter in February 2012 to interview at the new Rehoboth Beach Panera. The franchisee operates stores in Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey small towns, and wanted Brooke’s local knowledge and expertise. Panera is obviously a big company, but the labor force is 100 percent local, including young people from Cape Henlopen and Indian River high schools, Sussex Central and Sussex Tech.

And working at Panera isn’t all that different from school! Brooke oversees a strict training regimen with online courses and written tests. Once a potential employee passes those tests, extensive on-the-job training and shadowing ensure that every move is consistent - from the baking of the bread to the building of the sandwiches to the initial greeting at the register. Employees are encouraged to become proficient at multiple stations, and these accomplishments are recognized by pins on their caps. The more pins an employee has earned, the more places he or she can work in the restaurant. It’s a win-win for them, the company and the guests.

Brooke Wells works closely with GM Shae Muir to make sure that every guest experience is a good one. And the company backs them up with fresh, never-frozen bread dough, all of which is born from a proprietary sourdough starter. It’s delivered daily and baked from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m..  363 days a year. Produce is delivered fresh, with fruit and vegetables cut and prepared daily. The chicken and turkey are certified antibiotic-free. Panera keeps it even more local by donating unsold bread and pastries to local charities, most notably Epworth United Methodist Church and the West Rehoboth Coalition.

Panera’s stated goal is to be “an everyday oasis” for its guests. Free WiFi, comfortable booths and self-service beverages encourage people to linger and sip as long as they want. The casual dining business is a challenge, as employees stand squarely between a company’s cherished concept and the all-important guest. If ongoing systems are put into place to ensure that those employees know how to deliver the concept, success is virtually guaranteed. Case in point: Panera Bread.

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