Carrie Rengers

Panera franchisee Randy Simon has ‘bittersweet’ sale

Randy Simon and his Original Bread Inc. sold 34 Paneras this week to Cleveland-based Pan American Group LLC.
Randy Simon and his Original Bread Inc. sold 34 Paneras this week to Cleveland-based Pan American Group LLC. The Wichita Eagle

Panera Bread franchisee Randy Simon is “just trying to catch my breath” today.

“We seem to have sold our Paneras,” he says of his Original Bread Inc.

Simon sold his 34 cafes in Kansas and Missouri to Cleveland-based Pan American Group LLC, the second-largest Panera franchisee and a division of San Francisco-based Flynn Restaurant Group.

He says under terms of the agreement, the sale price is confidential.

“We first started talking about it a year ago when my partner, Howard Wilkins, was having some health issues,” Simon says.

Wilkins died late last year.

Simon’s brother, Bill, also was ill and died shortly before Wilkins.

“I was trying to spend a little more time over at Freddy’s and take on his chores,” Randy Simon says of their Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers.

“Of course, I’m getting to be an old man, too,” says Simon, 67.

Wilkins and Simon were involved in 27 businesses over the years, from Paneras, Pizza Huts and other restaurants to oil companies and other businesses.

The Paneras were “the longest we’d ever been in any of the businesses we’d ever been in,” Simon says.

They signed their first Panera deal in 1993 and opened their first store in January 1994 in Overland Park.

Art Anast and Mark Babich also were founders and remained minority partners in the business.

Simon says it was Anast who, as they were getting out of the Rent-A-Center business years ago, said, “You ought to come look at this bread thing.”

Their first Panera was the 19th restaurant and the first franchise for what was then known as the St. Louis Bread Co.

Today, Panera has more than 2,000 stores.

The franchise has a lot of changes coming.

There are store remodels planned and the addition of delivery to homes and businesses.

Simon says he was partially done with transitioning to Panera 2.0 with new rapid pick-up at the stores. There are no in-house kiosks or table deliveries yet, though.

“Without my partner, Howard, it was going to be a little tricky to be able to capitalize all those initiatives and fully implement them and really give them the attention that they needed,” Simon says.

He says Pan American is well capitalized.

“I think we found a good buyer to sell to,” Simon says. “ I think they’re going to carry on the traditions we started.”

Panera hasn’t been the franchise Simon thought it would be.

When he started, typical cafes were about 2,500 square feet and most had annual sales of less than $1 million.

Simon’s first several stores were all over 4,000 square feet, and the average Panera store – including his – now averages “well over $2.5 million a year.”

Not that Simon complained.

“It was a benefit,” he says. “It was just a different business than what we signed on to.”

Simon says he learned a lot through growing with the Panera system.

He says it’s been a challenging last 15 years – particularly the past seven – for restaurants.

“For some reason, Panera always seems to stay above that fray.”

Simon will continue his work with Freddy’s, but he’d like to do another venture if something else presents itself.

“I’m not sure my wife wants me to be looking around … for other opportunities out there.”

Simon says the timing was right to sell his Paneras but that “it’s bittersweet.”

“We’re proud to have been in that business.”

Carrie Rengers: 316-268-6340, @CarrieRengers