In the Heat of the Night



Baguettes bake in stone-lined ovens. Panera Bread provides bakers with specific guidelines — including photographs showing the colors of underbaked, overbaked, and ideally baked crusts — for uniform quality.

CREDIT: MICHAEL KLEINSCHMIDT

Like the shoemaker’s elves, bakers at Panera Bread work while you sleep. So even if you walk into the café and store when the doors first open each day, you’ll find an array of fresh breads, muffins, bagels, pastries, and cookies. When you’re switching on Conan O’Brien or crawling into bed, bakers are just beginning a night of stretching, scoring, shaping, filling, folding, and baking dough.

Long wooden panels slide baguettes into stone-lined ovens. Tall racks with a variety of scones, mini bundt cakes, sweet rolls, and other goodies rotate in a convection oven. Between the beeping of the timers, bakers move continuously from one loaf or artisan pastry to another — deftly rolling, cutting, and braiding dough; scooping fruit and cheese fillings into a pastry ring; or icing a bear claw. The ovens bake nonstop. By morning, the shelves and cases that were empty at 10 p.m. (all products not sold by day are given to food banks) are filled.

Panera stakes its reputation on freshness and purity (baguettes have four ingredients, none of which is a preservative) and well-trained employees. Bakers undergo seven weeks of training, followed by “demonstration bakes” and a written test. Once a month, training specialists visit each café to ensure Panera standards are being met.

The formula has been so successful that the chain posted a 33 percent growth in profits in the first half of 2009. In the desert, the Palm Springs and La Quinta cafés will be joined by a Palm Desert location midyear.

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