A bite of business

WARREN – Sam Covelli expected Panera Bread to do well when Covelli Enterprises decided some 20 years ago to get into the business of franchising the popular eatery.

“But I didn’t realize at the time it would take off as it has,” said Covelli. “It’s gone beyond what we expected. We have our outstanding staff and customers to thank for that.”

On Wednesday, Covelli, owner / operator of Covelli Enterprises, will open Panera’s 2,000th location, in Elyria, bringing the number of the bakery-cafe establishments his company has to nearly 300.

The Elyria Panera, across from Chestnut Commons at Chestnut Ridge Road and Route 57, features a drive-thru similar to the one at the Panera on Youngstown Warren Road in Niles.

“It’s an honor to open the 2,000th Panera Bread,” Covelli said. “It’s a true testament to the strength of the brand, the loyalty of our customers and the hard work of our employees. “

Covelli became the largest franchisee of McDonald’s restaurants, opening 50 in Ohio and Pennsylvania by the mid-1990s. In 1997, Covelli and his father, Albert, who founded Warren-based Covelli Enterprises more than 50 years ago, decided to sell their interest in McDonald’s to begin franchising Panera Bread.

Since then, Covelli Enterprises has grown into Panera’s largest franchisee. Covelli said he and his father first began exploring the bakery-cafe concept before the chain took on the name Panera.

“It was St. Louis Bread Co. in St. Louis when we first started considering the concept,” Covelli said. “We read about it, tried it out, fell in love with the food and knew we could run with it. We realized we could do a lot of good things with the concept. Panera worked well with us. When we started opening stores, we were breaking all the records, getting the most volume. It was exciting,” Covelli said.

“We were able to join the Panera family in the infancy stage of the brand. We got involved and quickly became the largest franchisee. There was great opportunity for growth. We knew we could combine the strengths of the Panera Bread concept and use our experience in the restaurant industry to make a successful business.”

In May 2012, Covelli was the first Panera Bread franchisee to take the concept international, with a record-breaking opening in Toronto. By the end of 2015, Covelli Enterprises was operating more than 270 Panera Bread locations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, Florida and Toronto.

The company has grown to employ more than 25,000 people, including 2,000 in the Mahoning Valley. Covelli also operates five O’Charley’s restaurants and and Dairy Queen stores, including two on the Ohio Turnpike.

Covelli said it’s important to always get “back to basics” when it comes to running any business successfully but specifically restaurants.

“You can start with a good concept, and that’s important, but it’s how you run with it. You can have the greatest concept in the world but you still need to run the business the right way,” he said. “Customers have a lot of choices out there. But they go where the best food is with cleanest restaurant and the best service. Sometimes, people complicate the restaurant business too much, but they forget about the customers. But the customer, they’re our boss. If the customer doesn’t get treated right, they can go anywhere. I like fussy customers. The fussier the customer is, the better we are.”

Covelli Enterprises also has a long-standing history giving back to the community. Throughout its existence, the company has donated millions of dollars to local charitable organizations, including the U.S. Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots program, the Salvation Army, the Disabled American Veterans, the Animal Welfare League, the American Heart Association, Akron Children’s Hospital of the Mahoning Valley and Second Harvest Food Bank. Every August, the company hosts the area’s largest fundraising event, the Panerathon, a 10K / two-mile walk that has drawn more 30,000 people and has raised more than $1.3 million for the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center.

Covelli and his wife, Caryn, live in Warren and have three children, Candace, Albert and Danielle. Covelli said he plans to continue to build on the success his company has had with Panera.

“We didn’t think it would grow as rapidly as it has, but I’m grateful it has. Something that’s especially great is that we’re able to continue operating our business in the place we want to be, here in Trumbull County, in Warren,” Covelli said.

The grand-opening celebration at the Panera in Elyria will include two days of special offers. The first 200 customers Wednesday will receive a free You Pick Two for a Year certificate, and with any purchase, the first 2,000 customers will receive a free travel mug with two weeks of free coffee. In addition, former Ohio State University star Ezekiel Elliot will sign autographs from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Ron Shaich, Panera founder and CEO, said the chain is “grateful to have strong partners like Covelli Enterprises who continue to deliver an industry-leading guest experience and are helping to propel our growth.

“The opening of our 2,000th bakery-cafe is a proud milestone for the Panera Family. Whenever we open a new location, I’m reminded that the strength of Panera has been built one guest and one bakery-cafe at a time.”

In celebration of the 2,000th location, $2,000 will be donated by Covelli Enterprises to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1079 in Elyria.

“You can’t get complacent. Consumers’ tastes change, and we have to change with them,” Covelli. “You have to keep looking at new products, keep expanding on the successful products you have and never lose your standards. That’s how you stay on top of the game. Everyone here works together to make it happen. If you develop your people, you strengthen your organization. And you never forget your customers. That’s how you build success.”

vshank@tribtoday.com