By Tracy Jennison

While visiting an Atlanta Bread Company restaurant, I couldn’t help but overhear two customers as they waited to pick up their orders.

Atlanta Bread Company has put a lot of work into its eighty locations—all to entice adult diners.

“There’s a fireplace in the middle of the restaurant,” said the first woman.

“And the mural!” exclaimed the second. “Have you seen how this place is decorated?”

Instead of eating right away, the women walked around the restaurant, examining its interior with obvious approval. This is no accident. In the chain’s attempt to position itself as an upscale, quick-casual restaurant, the Atlanta Bread Company has focused a great deal of attention on creating an environment that is visually pleasing—above the plastic-chaired norm. Its look includes hardwood floors and crown molding. A black and gold color scheme suggests elegance in the company’s newest locations, as do the upholstered furniture and textured wall coverings. And what other quick-service chain can boast of having classical music on the speaker system and a fire burning in a stone fireplace at the center of its restaurant?

Open since 1993, this privately held company has found a niche among baby-boomers by catering to their increasingly busy and health-conscious lifestyles. For those looking beyond the standard burger, the Atlanta Bread Company’s menu offers soups, salads, sandwiches, and a variety of freshly baked breads and baked goods. There’s also a small breakfast-sandwich selection, in addition to gourmet coffees, including lattes and espresso.

Prices fall into the typical quick-service range—if toward the upper end. Sandwiches range from $2.95 for a typical peanut butter and jelly sandwich (drink included) to $5.95 for the ABC Special (roast beef, turkey, ham, provolone cheese, and toppings). Salad prices stay below $5 and coffees start at 90 cents, topping off at around $3 for a grande-sized latte cup. Loaves of bread and other baked goods can also be purchased at varying prices. “We are not fast food, but quick-casual,” said Paul Wilson, a spokesman for the company. “None of our products have grease in them. We provide healthy food that’s different from a typical fast-food chain.” The company has a commissary in Marietta, Georgia, which furnishes all of the chain’s locations with bakery supplies.

In addition to providing a superior product, Wilson says ABC has helped ease the customer’s selection process by replacing overhead menu boards with new menu displays. These displays, which look similar to touch-screen monitors, are positioned in front of each cash register in many of the stores. Wilson says the strategic positioning speeds up the ordering process while allowing natural interaction between the cashier and the customer. The system was produced by Better Image using a durable 3M 180 Series Vinyl UM ink.

Why it bears watching: According to Wilson, there’s demand for the Atlanta Bread Company concept, and large numbers of franchisees have signed on. Entrepreneur magazine named Atlanta Bread Company one of the fastest-growing franchises in 1999.

The company is staking its future on the yet-unproven quick-casual model. But, results so far look promising: ABC reported $55 million in systemwide sales in 1999, with sixty-five restaurants in fifteen states. It has since grown to eighty locations in seventeen states. Wilson says he expects the company to reach 110 stores by year-end with sales exceeding $100 million. By 2005, the Atlanta Bread Company plans to have more than six hundred restaurants—some possibly located in the United Kingdom and Canada.

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