Great Harvest Bread mostly rises to occasion

The Great Harvest Bread Co. Web site basically makes it clear that all potential franchisees should expect to be indoctrinated into some kind of fantastic feel-good bread cult.

They toss around warm, fuzzy catchphrases like “designing a life,” and “freedom-based” and refer to their chain of 200 stores as “learning communities.”

“When bakeries grow, it means more people are eating great bread” is their mantra, and they seem fully intent on making sure that everyone across this great land has access to this basic human right.

The kumbaya carries over into their hiring policies as well. “Our goal is to recruit the nicest, most generous, honest and authentic people we can find,” they say and indeed, the employees I encountered during both recent visits to the bakery and it’s adjoining sandwich counter were certainly accommodating, friendly, and expeditious. In fact, I’d only been inside the door approximately two seconds when the clerk swiftly appeared and handed me over a sample slice of Cinnamon Chip Fruit Swirl bread. This is an excellent and charming ploy to convert people into the Great Harvest Society right away and brainwash them into submission with their communion of tasty, fresh-baked goods.

It worked on me, of course. I’m not easily sucked in by the lofty corporate puffery and phony, cookie-cutter smiles prevalent in many restaurant chains, but Great Harvest doesn’t feel remotely like a franchise operation and the staff comes across as down-to-earth and legitimately nice.

The Coeur d’Alene branch of Great Harvest is located in a large converted home, a multilevel ’60s affair with an interior design scheme that makes the place feel like the Brady Bunch’s farmhouse country getaway. I almost expected to see Ann B. Davis as Alice pop out from somewhere behind the hot cross buns in her blue uniform and wink at me. I’d guess the main counter and baking zone used to be the living room and kitchen, and just up an open flight of stairs is the lunch area, formerly Peter and Bobby’s room. It’s a bright, airy space with wooden booths and a smattering of works by local wildlife artist Sheila Bledsoe, including a cranky ostrich drawing with the apt caption “kneads caffeine.”

A turkey, cranberry and cream cheese sandwich is one of my favorites, but honestly, I wasn’t overly thrilled with the Great Harvest version. Not that it was terrible; it was just a little on the petite side, and somewhat boring. I was expecting a sauce with whole cranberries and a nice, thick layer of cream cheese, but instead they were both blended together into a thinly applied pinkish spread. The turkey itself was fine and the honey-wheat bread did live up to the hype, but I was more or less left feeling that I hadn’t really received $7 worth of excitement, even with the requisite dill pickle spear on the side.

However, I wasn’t quite ready to dismiss the place after one visit, so I decided to revisit a few days later and give it another go. Upon closer examination of the take-out menu, I’d noticed a temptation I hadn’t seen at first: the Great Harvest Grilled 3 Cheese. I couldn’t get the idea out of my brain so I rolled in last Monday only to be disappointed by a locked door and a sign explaining that, oddly, they were closed for the Easter holiday. Easter Monday, I guess.

It turned out to be worth the wait. I returned the next day on my lunch break and requested my order to go, along with one of their trademark oatmeal-chocolate chip Dillon cookies. When I pulled my neatly wrapped sandwich out of the bag, I was amused to find it accompanied by a separately neatly-wrapped dill pickle spear.

In my world, a grilled cheese is made by slathering large amounts of butter on the outside of the sandwich before it hits the frying pan, but Great Harvest makes them dry, Panini style. This was actually a refreshingly light approach, and the sunflower-seed encrusted Dakota bread was earthy and rich. Cheddar and Swiss cheeses were melted together along with an incredibly pungent garlic-and-herb cream cheese spread, making it perhaps the best restaurant-made grilled cheese sandwich I’ve encountered and a bargain at just under five bucks.

The deal was sealed with the sacramental scrumptious cookie, and I finally understood the allure behind all the philosophy. Wiping the crumbs off my desk, I gladly became a blind follower of the Great Harvest doctrine of deliciousness.

Contact correspondent Patrick Jacobs by e-mail at orangetv@yahoo.com. Previous columns are available online at spokesman.com/ columnists. For more restaurant and nightlife reviews, music commentary and random thoughts and photos, visit his blog at getoutnorthidaho.com.

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