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The new Panera Bread location at Three Rivers Mall in Kelso saw a steady stream of customers Monday.

The long-anticipated Panera Bread restaurant opened in Kelso recently, and so far the response to its soups, sandwiches and healthy-meal menu has justified the hype.

“I think we need it and I’m glad we have it,” Longview resident Marti Campbell said Monday before meeting a friend for lunch at Panera. “I’m tired of all the hamburger joints in town.”

The California-based Panera franchise announced plans to purchase a 4,300 square-foot plot from Target in September 2016 and has since invested about $2 million in the endeavor. Panera franchise marketing manager J.J. Reading said the location will employ about 60 people.

“Business has been great. We’re really pleased with the first couple weeks that we’ve been open,” Reading said Monday. “We’re really happy to be in Kelso and the neighborhood nearby. We’re optimistic that business will continue to go well.”

Reading added that the Panera’s proximity to Interstate 5 will offer options for travelers moving between Portland and Seattle. The closest Panera is located in Vancouver.

Michelle Fest, 17, of Kelso said she hoped Panera’s recent move to the area might encourage other businesses to open in the Three Rivers Mall.

“It’s nice to have a well-known, popular place here,” Fest said. “(Panera) is providing more jobs, which Kelso needs, especially for minors.”

Panera is known for artisan breads and an emphasis on natural ingredients in soups, sandwiches, salads and pastries. The chain has about 2,000 locations across the U.S. and Canada.

Silver Lake resident Neil Francis said he tried Panera for the first time Monday because his wife often talks about how much she likes the food.

“It expands our horizons. I’ve only lived here three years, but to me there are not a lot of food choices. This is a clean, good choice,” Francis said.

Char Braack, spokeswoman for the Kelso Target, said Target employees were excited to see Panera move in next door.

“Our employees are super happy they get to walk over and get soup for lunch,” Braack said. “Between our staff and the general public, everyone has been very excited leading up to the opening.”

Bob and Roberta Carns, of Napavine, said they ate lunch at Panera because they like the brand.

“We love Panera Bread,” Bob Carns said. “We stopped here because we know their name and the quality of their stuff. The food is good and the service is good.”

Dave Knoeppel, of Castle Rock, said he and his wife didn’t get exactly the salads they ordered, but he’ll probably return.

“It will help the local economy because more people are employed,” Knoeppel said. “More options are good for the community and will draw more people here.”

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