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4:45 PM Thu, Nov. 15th

Panera Bread opening near the mall

Kelsi Popik, Panera Bread Service Associate, practices making a Mango Smoothie Wednesday afternoon during employee training in Prescott. Panera Bread is set to open on Monday, April 27 at the Prescott Gateway Mall near Red Robin. (Photo by Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier)

Kelsi Popik, Panera Bread Service Associate, practices making a Mango Smoothie Wednesday afternoon during employee training in Prescott. Panera Bread is set to open on Monday, April 27 at the Prescott Gateway Mall near Red Robin. (Photo by Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier)

PRESCOTT - The powerhouse bakery café, Panera Bread, will be opening up a location in the same lot as Best Buy and Red Robin by the Gateway Mall on Monday, April 27, at 6 a.m.

Once open, it will be the fifth Panera Bread location in Arizona.

The company opened its first location in the state just over a year ago in Phoenix.

After seeing how strong its direct competitor, Paradise Bakery, was in this state, Panera Bread bought it out in a five year acquisition plan. It has since been gradually spreading its influence in Arizona and converting the state's 30-plus Paradise Bakeries into Panera Breads.

The company has also been recently ramping up its image and operation by offering multiple customer interaction points such as a drive thru, kiosks and an app, as well as creating café environments that could be described as a chic study lounge meets a large coffeehouse with lots of food options. These features allow them to appeal to a more modern crowd and to take on a larger customer flow without extensive backups in order fulfillment, according to Panera Bread officials.

The general manager at the local and nearby competitor, Wildflower, does not seem to be too worried about Panera Bread moving in next door.

"We want to see different stores move in and draw people to the area," said Jake Smith, Prescott Wildflower GM. "We know that it will take away some of our business for a certain period of time, but what I'm hearing from customers is that they like Wildflower, we've been here for 13 years, they're loyal and they will keep coming here. They may go try over there, but Wildflower is going to be their home."

Smith pointed out that the same thing happened when other similar food and beverage companies such as Cuppers and Einstein Bros Bagels opened up.

"Even with Jimmy Johns in Prescott Valley," Smith said. "Those first couple days, we saw there was a little bit less of a lunch crowd, but within a week, it was right back to normal."

Frank Pantoja, Panera Bread general manager in Prescott, agrees that both bakeries target pretty much the same market and that Wildflower has a solid fan base, but believes Panera Bread's reputation is well known and is much anticipated in the Prescott area.

"I think there is a huge following and loyalty base for us," Pantoja said. "I think that people who like Wildflower will still come to Panera, and, you know, there could be a following for both and we could share the market together."

To preview its opening, Panera Bread is having a special invite-only event this Friday, April 24. They've named it a Drive Thru Party for a Cause because all of the proceeds will go directly toward supporting Prescott Community Cupboard.

Pantoja and his team went around to businesses throughout the general Prescott area and passed out invitation flyers. Those who got their hands on them simply have to present the flyer at the drive thru during the timeframes listed and make a voluntary donation to support Prescott Community Cupboard to receive a meal of their choosing from the Panera Bread menu.

"We delivered close to 1,000 invitations," Pantoja said.

Panera Bread is currently training and hiring about 50 associates to work at the branch. Starting Monday, it will be open Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Follow Max Efrein on Twitter @mefrein