Panera Bread is a chain of over 1,200 bakery-cafes in the U.S. and Canada; stores in the St. Louis area operate as the St. Louis Bread Company. Panera started out as Au Bon Pain Co., but by 1999 Au Bon Pain divested itself of other brands to concentrate on the Panera concept. Personally, I love the food at Panera. But despite my obvious love of coffee, I rarely drink it at restaurants because it’s either lousy, unsustainable, or both. At Panera, I noted that urns at their coffee station are marked with brew times to indicate freshness, and each of the three daily offerings actually notes an origin and source that were more specific than generic. After a bit of digging, I discovered that Panera serves coffee that is roasted and sourced in a way that is far more transparent and responsible than any other non-specialty coffee chain I’ve encountered.
Way back when, Au Bon Pain’s coffee was roasted by the Coffee Connection,which was George Howell’s gig at the time. You know him now from my reviews of his great coffees at his Terroir Coffee Company. George was and is a pioneer in specialty coffee, and has had a long relationship with another trailblazer, Bill McAlpin, best known for his model Costa Rican coffee farm, La Minita. La Minita was the main bean at Au Bon Pain. After George sold Coffee Connection to Starbucks, Au Bon Pain changed roasters until they settled on Distant Lands Coffee in Tyler, Texas — whose chairman is Bill McAlpin.
In addition to La Minita, McAlpin now owns, manages, or partners with a number of other farms and mills in Costa Rica and other countries. Therefore, Distant Lands is able to grow/source, process, and roast, providing clients with quality coffee at very competitive prices.
Understand McAlpin and La Minita, and you understand the philosophy of Distant Lands, and much about the coffee Panera serves. On the environmental side, La Minita is a large estate in the Terrazu region — over 500 ha — but nearly 20% is set aside in forest reserves, including primary forest and forested corridors for wildlife movement. The production areas are shaded, in typical Costa Rican style, with pruned Poró (Erythrina poeppigiana) trees. No pesticides or herbicides are used. Some fertilizers and fungicides are applied, so the farm is not certified organic. On-site generated hydroelectric power is used in the mill, and coffee parchment is recycled for use in fueling dryers. La Minita workers are extremely well provided for, in pay, benefits, and amenities. This successful model has been used in other McAlpin farms and mills. You can read more about Distant Lands sustainability efforts here.
McAlpin has what is said to be an obsessive attention to detail and quality, so his coffees are meticulously harvested and processed. Only 15-25% of the production is exported with the La Minita name. Other beans from the farm, as well as other farms and mills managed by McAlpin, are marketed under other “marks” or brands. McAlpin’s style of careful processing of beans from other farms often goes by the moniker “La Minita prep.”
Panera typically offers three coffees daily, often a light or medium roast, a decaf, and either a dark roast or flavored coffee. The coffees within each category are not static — a good sign that the company wishes to use beans that are seasonal. The urns are not merely labeled “light roast” or “Costa Rican” but provide a more specific source; they were what helped me track down Distant Lands. Here are a few of the La Minita/Distant Lands sourced coffees I’ve seen offered at my local Panera recently (some included in blends).
Costa Rica El Indio Terrazu. El Indio is the mark used by CoopeTarrazu located in San Marcos. In past years, most of this went to European roasters, but I’ve seen it with increasing frequency here in the U.S.
Guatemala Arte Maya, El Oriente. A blend of beans sourced from Antigua and Huehuetenango. No doubt carefully processed at Distant Lands/McAlpin supervised partner mill, Beneficio de Cafe Pastores.
Colombia Reserva del Patron. Selected beans (larger than 18 screen size, I believe; slightly smaller are marketed under McAlpin’s Narino Del Abuelo brand) from one of McAlpin’s mills processing coffee from small farms in the Narino region. Mostly typica and caturra.
Brazil La Minita prep. I know Distant Lands has Brazilian partners, but I don’t have any more specific information. From what I gather, I am pretty sure this originates in the cerrado region.
Most big bakery/restaurant/fast food chains (Wendy’s, Dunkin Donuts) source coffee from one of the big multinational corporate coffee giants, or don’t disclose their sources at all (Tim Hortons). They tend to use cheap beans — and we know cheap means poverty, environmental destruction, and low quality. Panera has apparently made a decision to stick with a coffee provider that is committed to quality and sustainability. This in spite of the fact that in 2001, coffee only made up 4% of Panera sales and the company admitted that they could not compete with the likes of Starbucks or Caribou. In 2009, they plan to further upgrade their coffee menu.
Yes — I tried their coffee, the light roast. I was really pleased. No surprises, just a fresh, nicely sweet, very well balanced, bright cup of coffee with a classic Central American profile. Plus free refills and wireless Internet in their stores.
Kudos to Panera!