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BAKERIES ROLLING IN THE DOUGH BIZ OVERCOMES LOW-CARB FAD.

Byline: Eugene Tong Staff Writer

VALENCIA - Crusty, golden loafs pile on wicker trays like a scene from an Old World bakery at the new Panera Bread outlet along McBean Parkway, where hungry lunch-hour customers crowd for a taste.

``I could eat bread pretty much anytime,'' said Jeff Marduce, 27, of Valencia. ``(Grocery)-store bought's fine. But this brings another restaurant in this town, which we need.''

Fresh-baked bread is making inroads in Santa Clarita with several new chain bakeries offering quick lunch fixes opening over the past year. Corner Bakery Cafe, part of the Dallas-based Brinker International, whose restaurant brands include Chili's and Romano's Macaroni Grill, opened last year at a Valencia outdoor mall.

Panera, a Missouri-based chain, has more than 480 franchises nationwide, and Mariposa Bread operates Panera outlets in the San Fernando, Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys. The Studio City-based baker plans to open 14 stores within its territory over five years.

``Panera loves to find a community that fits our profile, and Santa Clarita is just that,'' said Lisa Van Gorp, marketing manager for the local franchise. ``It's growing, it's a lovely community. ... It's just a really good fit.''

Restaurateurs salivate at the city's demographics: the median family income is $76,000, and the population is expected to grow from 167,000 in 2004 to more than 176,000 this year.

Not even the low-carb diet fad - about 15 percent of U.S. adults are on the bread-free regimen, according to market research firm Opinion Dynamics Corp.'s January survey - made a dent.

``Everybody can do their own thing,'' said Steve Dinkowitz, who founded Dink's Deli and Bagel Bakery in Valencia eight years ago. ``People go to the gym, and they still come in here.''

Dinkowitz, 53, has been a veteran baker for 30 years, and ran a bagel bakery in Northridge before his commuting customers and the raw numbers convinced him to move shop here. Between catering and retail, he moves about 10,000 bagels a day.

``The business here is much better than the (San Fernando) Valley,'' he said. ``You have more people that appreciate the better things up here.''

Meantime, full-service bakery cafes such as Panera and Corner Bakery - part of the restaurant industry's ``fast casual'' segment - are growing here and nationwide because they're versatile. Think a plush diner with cuisine notches above fast food, quick counter service and open from breakfast to late-night snack, said Nancy Hampton, vice president of marketing at Corner Bakery.

``It's less about carbs,'' she said. ``It kind of fits the ever-decreasing amount of time that we as individuals seem to have.

``The baked goods that Corner Bakery offers are old-style or grandma- inspired baked goods. If we have time, those are the kinds of things we'd make for ourselves.''

The chain, which has outlets stretching from Orange to Ventura counties, is poised for aggressive growth statewide, Hampton said.

But Dinkowitz, who's starting a dinner menu, didn't mind competing with the dozen bakeries already in business, and more likely on the way. He knows customers can taste the difference.

``That doesn't really hurt me any,'' he said. ``I don't worry about the bakery that opens up down the street.''

John Evarts enjoys an occasional slice of fresh bread despite his Weight Watchers diet, and doesn't quite distinguish between the city's bakeries.

``There's probably not a need for them,'' said Evarts, 30, of Saugus. ``But if it's bringing in good business, they'll keep opening them.''

Eugene Tong, (661) 257-5253

eugene.tong(at)dailynews.com

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3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) Patrons enjoy meals at the new Panera Bread store in Valencia, above, where fresh-baked loaves await customers. Several new chain bakeries have opened recently in the Santa Clarita Valley.

(3) Mariposa Bread operates Panera outlets in the San Fernando, Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys, and plans to open more.

Andy Holzman/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 31, 2005
Words:645
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