DILLON — It’s being called the best thing that could happen to bread in America, for both consumers and investors. Great Harvest Bread Co., a 40-year-old bakery brand that makes bread “the way it was made in the Bible” – milled from whole grains every day on the premises of its local franchised bakeries – hopes to become the competition for Panera.

The company announced it will begin offering a “hub and spoke” bakery-café franchise opportunity. With the new model, franchisees can purchase a large territory that includes a single Great Harvest Bread Co. bakery operation, and as many café-only units as they desire in surrounding towns. The bakery locations would be equipped with ovens and ample space to produce and deliver the hand-milled breads to the nearby café-only locations throughout the day.

Great Harvest Bread announced they’ll be looking to expand in all areas of the United States, primarily in the Northeast region.

“All of the other big chains out there in the fast-casual bakery segment have one big box location every 10 or 15 miles that doesn’t bake from scratch,” said CEO Mike Ferretti. “These competitors are par baking from frozen loaves that are mass manufactured by machines.

"They’re not milling the wheat berry in the stores and making everything from scratch like we do. With our new model, a Great Harvest Bread Co. franchisee can cover a larger territory for a significantly less investment than competitors like Panera, but still continue to make and serve bread by hand from scratch the way it’s supposed to. Our franchisees will have a bakery café of their own, which maximizes coverage and still allows them to be hyper-local with a personal touch in smaller communities.”

Dubbed “bread heaven” by fanatic customers since 1976, Great Harvest Bread bakeries make their bread from whole grains milled on the premises – typically a five-hour process that starts every day as early as 2:30 a.m. Emphasizing it is not merely a one-trick pony, Great Harvest Bread represents and offers better breakfasts, better sandwiches, healthier dinners and tastier desserts than common, overblown national chains.

Great Harvest Bread offers for breads, muffins and cinnamon rolls, as well as lunch items such as deli sandwiches including chicken or tuna salad, roast beef and vegetables all made on their choice of fresh bread made that morning.

“While the rest of the world got used to mass manufacturing of processed bread, Great Harvest continued to mill our own high-quality wheat and bake bread fresh daily,” said Great Harvest Bread Company President Eric Keshin. “Our customers love us for that. We continue to grind wheat berries ordered from local Montana family-owned farms."

Another difference with Great Harvest Bread Co., is a “Freedom Franchise” model in which franchisees can personalize their décor and menu offerings to suit their local markets.

While a national franchise, the bakeries are truly local and neighborly, allowing franchisees to add menu items specific to a particular city or region, stay open earlier or later, give their bakery-cafés a true neighborhood look, or even sell alcohol.

“Our franchisees have always loved the freedom aspect. They get the support they need from us, with flexibility to add elements that they know will appeal to guests in their market. They aren’t forced into a cookie-cutter boxed model like most franchises,” Keshin added.

The total average cost to open a Great Harvest Bread Co., bakery-café is about $315,000, compared to more than three times that for competing larger footprint concepts, such as Panera. The company is looking to open 25 locations with the new model in the next 15-18 months and is initially targeting the Northeast. While the new bakery-café model is ideally suited for multi-unit operators, single-unit franchises in smaller territories will still be available.

Keshin said their competitors are “manufacturing in commissaries and focusing on technology, mass and speed. We are baking bread from scratch the right way and offering a franchise opportunity for a significantly lower cost than the big-box guys. We can outperform them with our product and out-cover them with our new model.”