What Panera Was First Called

Known for its freshly baked bread and other goods, Panera Bread reigned as the leading bakery chain in the U.S. in 2021, with about $5.7 billion in annual sales. No other competitor even came close, but just like many other successful restaurants, the chain had humble beginnings. Founded by Ken Rosenthal, Panera Bread came to fruition in 1987 under a different name after visiting his brother in San Francisco, according to the St. Louis Business Journal

As the BBC noted, it was while visiting the Bay Area that Rosenthal discovered his love for sourdough bread, which had become a staple since the 1849 California Gold Rush. Convinced the bread would be a hit back in his Missouri hometown, Rosenthal bought a sourdough starter, or a fermented mixture of water and flour, and brought it home. He then opened his own bakery in Kirkwood, Missouri, and learned the art of bread making, which consisted of waking up at 2 a.m. to prepare the yeast, as he divulged in a 1987 interview (via YouTube). The new bakery sold primarily bread at the time, so Rosenthal called it the St. Louis Bread Company — but it didn't remain that way. 

What was Panera first named, and why did it change?

Six years after Kevin Rosenthal got into the business of bread, he sold it to Au Bon Pain Co. Inc. When Au Bon Pain took over the Missouri company, it already had hundreds of bakery-cafés open in the U.S. and overseas, according to the official Panera website. After Shaich acquired the St. Louis Bread Company, he wanted a name that sparked the booming "fast casual" dining experience. He renamed the company in the late 1990s to — you guessed it, Panera — which translates to "bread basket" in Spanish.

Today, more than 2,000 Panera Bread restaurants are peppered throughout the U.S. and Canada, with some locations still operating under the original name, St. Louis Bread Co. This includes the very first location in Kirkwood, Missouri, per Panera. The sourdough starter from San Francisco is still used in all of Panera's freshly baked bread, but the current menu includes a lot more than sourdough bread. Now, customers can choose from dozens of items, including soups, pasta, bread bowls, sandwiches, salads, and more.