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Panera began offering pasta dishes earlier this year. Does that worry you?

Not really. We share about 78 trading areas where we’re within a quarter of a mile of each other. Where we have looked at that, we have not seen any negative impact on our brand. If anything, just the additional awareness of noodles and pasta has caused our restaurants to go up a little bit.

Can you talk about where you’re growing?

We’re currently in 26 major markets across the U.S. We have really high unaided brand awareness only in a handful of markets, like our home base of Colorado, Wisconsin and Minnesota. So we will continue doing what we have been doing in that the majority of our growth — somewhere between 50 and 60 percent — is probably going to continue to be in markets that we’ve already entered. We’ll build restaurants, gain economies of scale and increase brand awareness.

Having said that, we add a couple of new markets every year. And as we begin to fill them in, we have plenty of new neighborhoods to focus on and introduce the brand. We’ll continue that very disciplined process in the years ahead.

Where are the opportunities regionally?

We’re already in Texas, in Austin, so we’re looking at Dallas and Austin. We’re looking at San Francisco and Orlando/Tampa. Those are the markets where we’re doing early market entry strategies now.

Why haven’t we seen more fast-casual brands go public? Is it purely a matter of scale or a reflection of market volatility?

Clearly the markets have been more volatile. The eating- and drinking-out pie hasn’t been growing, so successful brands that can endure and grow have to be able to take market share from other concepts. I think a lot of brands just focus on trying to get better and not necessarily high growth in difficult times.

We have been fortunate to continue to grow both our same-store sales base and new units because of the broad appeal of the business proposition and the guest experience. But, really, it’s because we have such a strong, experienced team that can focus on growth and restaurant execution.

I can’t really speak to why others may or may not choose this path. As you know, we were very patient in getting to this day and the reality is, for us, being a public company was never a goal. Our goal was to focus on a dining experience that we’re proud of. If you do that well and you make money, you have opportunities to raise money.

How was ringing the bell at Nasdaq today?

It was really a nice moment for the team to celebrate together all the hard work in creating a brand and delivering such great food to so many neighborhoods. That’s really what allowed us to do what we did today.

Contact Lisa Jennings at lisa.jennings@penton.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout