It was originally called Saint Louis Bread Company and still is called that in and around the St. Louis area. Panera Bread did originate in St. Louis and currently their headquarters is in Richmond Heights, Missouri. The CEO is Ronald M. Shaich. The company was founded in 1981 and currently operates 701 bakery-style cafes in 35 states in the U.S. Among those, 212 are company-owned and 489 are franchised. Their website claims that 145 are scheduled to be opened in 2004; being that I'm noding this in early 2005 indicates that they need to update their site.
Saint Louis Bread Company was bought by the French bakery company Au Bon Pain Co., Inc. in 1993. From there Au Bon expanded out of the St. Louis area and named those locations simply Panera Bread. In May of 1999 Au Bon Pain, Co., Inc. sold their Au Bon Pain business unit and retained Saint Louis Bread Company/Panera Bread and now the whole kit n' caboodle is simply known as Panera Bread Company.
They have won and received various awards and other types of accolades in their history. You can read all about those on their website, but as far as I'm concerned, they deserve it. The quality of the baked goods, sandwiches, and soups at Saint Louis Bread Company/Panera Bread is top notch. They also have gourmet coffees but I cannot personally comment on those as I have never tried any of them yet. But the soups: their french onion and broccoli cheddar are some of the best I've ever eaten and, even though you get slightly less soup this way, they are excellent eaten out of their soft-on-the-inside, chewy-on-the-outside edible bread bowls. I love scraping out the bowl at the end and you get that moist, soupy bread slop. After that's all gone I just grab what's left of the gutted bread bowl and tear into it like a wild animal. But I digress.
Besides their great soups, sandwiches, and coffees, every Panera has a bakery section that offers many different types of bread and pastries, just about any kind you can think of, from plain white to ciabatta.
As far as the atmosphere, it is pleasant and cozy, almost better for lunch than dinner. Contemporary music is played at a listenable but not interfering volume so you can enjoy the company of the good friends or family you are dining with, either at a booth, table, couch, or one of their two-person tall tables. Indeed, it is a great setting to get together and break bread with people, as it were...or it is equally as valuable to go there and dine alone, gather your thoughts, maybe bring a book, one that you're reading or writing. Bring your laptop computer, as many locations are now WiFi.
In St. Louis, Saint Louis Bread Company is often a place to make office lunch runs to. "You wanna go to BreadCo?" is often a question asked around the lunch hours in the Gateway City. However, I recommend dining there. One of my only criticisms of the place is that certain downtown locations consistently get take-out orders wrong. My company went through a period that lasted about two years where, when we ordered from this one particular location, every single time, no exaggeration, the order was wrong somehow, sometimes slightly, sometimes completely and totally wrong. But I attribute that to the level of intelligence of the youth living in and working in downtown St. Louis, not the company as a whole.