Panera Bread will move its Shelton cafe to a shopping center under construction if the developer can get zoning approval for a drive-through window.
The developer of the Fountain Square complex at 801 Bridgeport Ave. has applied for the needed permission from the Planning and Zoning Commission.
P&Z approved only one restaurant drive-through operation at Fountain Square, which will include three restaurants. Chick-fil-A will get the already allowed drive-through. The commission also permitted drive-through windows for a pharmacy and bank at Fountain Square, being built on the 19.1-acre site of a former United Illuminating facility.
Developer attorney Dominick Thomas said drive-through windows are now an economic necessity for many restaurants and other businesses. “The use of drive-throughs isn't going to decrease, it's going to increase,” Thomas told the P&Z at the Jan. 23 meeting.
P&Z has been leery of allowing drive-throughs in the city due to concerns about customer vehicle backups, increased road traffic and tenant quality.
The developer is specifically asking P&Z to modify the Planned Development District (PDD) approved for Fountain Square by changing the allowed uses on the property. In addition to restaurants and retail, the complex will have a hotel and offices. The site is now being prepared for construction.
Thomas told the commission when Fountain Square was approved he would return to ask for another restaurant drive-through if an “appropriate tenant” was secured, and that has happened with Panera.
Panera Bread now is at 850 Bridgeport Ave., in a retail building at Armstrong Road that includes a Staples office supply store. The present site doesn't have a drive-through window but does offer the company's Rapid Pickup option, which involves pre-ordering and going inside to pick up the food.
Jason Wuchiski of True Commercial Real Estate, who handles Panera locations in Connecticut, said the company is moving its restaurants nationwide to locations with drive-throughs when leases come up.
Wuchiski said Panera is “constantly looking for ways to keep up with the times” and a site must “have a drive-through or it will meet with resistance from Panera [corporate}.”
P&Z member Mark Widomski asked if Panera would leave Shelton if it couldn't get a location with a drive-through window. Wuchiski said Panera does consider staying in places without drive-throughs “if the market is strong enough.”
But Wuchiski said the move would allow Panera to be part of the “excitement” of a new development and provide convenience for nearby office workers.
The new Panera Bread would occupy 4,450 square feet in a Fountain Square building with another tenant, most likely a restaurant. It would also have an outdoor dining patio. The lease would likely be for 15 years, Wuchiski said.
The drive-through would have a 10-vehicle queue and the menu-ordering displays would not be visible from the road, representatives said.
Wuchiski said Panera locations don't get a large percentage of their revenues from drive-throughs because many customers prefer to dine inside due to the ambience.
“It’s not a McDonald's,” Wuchiski said.
Thomas said Panera “doesn't sell eat-in-the-car food” and called it “ludicrous to refer to Panera in the same breath as Burger King or McDonald’s.”
Commissioner Jimmy Tickey said he recently used a Panera Bread drive-through in another town and had a good experience. He said P&Z had been concerned with the quality of restaurants and not traffic when setting drive-through limits at Fountain Square.
“This is a different kind of a business than what we think of as fast food,” Tickey said of Panera.
Some commission members, however, were worried about increased traffic generation and potential drive-through backups.
Widomski said the request isn’t consistent with how the developers presented the complex as being pedestrian-friendly, with sidewalks, new steps to a residential tower behind it, and a small public park in the middle with picnic tables and green space.
He questioned what would stop Fountain Square developers from coming back with more restaurant drive-through requests in the future. “We agreed to one,” Widomski said.
Chairman Virginia Harger said if such requests are received, they would be considered like any other application.
Resident Greg Tetro said he opposed the request, asking the P&Z to consider the impact on existing shopping centers when tenants want to move to new locations. Tetro said using a PDD for the project means the developer can seek a modification “and sneak more in.”
The hearing on the project was continued to Feb. 13, when the P&Z is expected to separately consider final development plans for the project's second phase, which includes the hotel and Panera site.