New Great Harvest an aromatic place to hang out

11/10/2011 5:00 AM

11/10/2011 11:18 AM

To boost sales in a tough economy, Great Harvest Bread Company did more than change its location in east Wichita.

"We’ve created a new business model," said Tim Heeren, who owns the bakery and restaurant with his wife, MariAnn.

That’s clear as soon as you walk in the door at 535 N. Woodlawn. For customers familiar with Great Harvest’s old spot on East Central, some variation of a surprised, "This is nice!" is usually the reaction.

The old location was chiefly a bakery and take-out sandwich shop with a few seats for customers.

The new restaurant has seating for 70 in a high-ceilinged space with Tuscan-style faux painted walls — MariAnn’s handiwork — and a semi-open kitchen. The 4,500 square feet it occupies is three times the size of the former location.

"The ‘wow factor’ when people walk in here is incredible," Tim Heeren said. "It’s literally the talk of the east side of town."

The changes are more than cosmetic. Great Harvest overhauled its sandwich menu — while keeping a few old favorites such as the California Cobb and Mile High — and added soups, salads and hot breakfast items.

It’s producing bagels for the first time and starting next year will begin baking hard-crusted breads such as baguettes and sourdough to go along with the whole-grain and sweet breads and cookies it’s known for.

"We’re getting into anything that’s kind of European," Heeren said.

The Heerens greatly expanded their retail space, selling jams and jellies, pasta, dry soup mixes and more from specialty food makers. A long coffee bar and free Wi-Fi have been added.

"My biggest motivation was to create a place for people to come and hang out," Heeren said.

The other day, he noted, a customer arrived with his laptop at 8 a.m. and didn’t leave until 6 p.m.

"That’s what I want," Heeren said. "That’s what I envision this place to be."

Two semi-private conference rooms are available by reservation on one side of the main dining area. On the other side, Heeren is renting offices to The Young Life, a Christian ministry.

"I wanted them to have a presence so people can know about it," said Heeren, whose son participates in The Young Life. "I get people asking me about it at least once a day."

The restaurant is also available for rental after it closes each night at 6.

The Heerens didn’t revamp their business because it was failing. Great Harvest has always had a loyal clientele who appreciate the staff’s personable style and stream of free samples of warm bread and cookies that flow out of the kitchen.

But Heeren said the business "needed to grow" to remain profitable and hopefully be passed along to his children.

The Heerens opened their first Great Harvest in east Wichita in 1995. They operated a second store on the west side for three years before closing it this summer. There are about 250 Great Harvest franchises nationwide. Heeren said franchisees are given a great deal of freedom.

"We’ve done a lot more than what a typical Great Harvest would do," he said.

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