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ATLANTA-Fast-casual restaurant chain, Atlanta Bread Co. is making a push into the Northeast and plans to open 25 stores in the region over the next few years. The company already has two units open in each Connecticut and New York and six in New Jersey.

Atlanta Bread currently has 160 units mainly found in Southern states. Last year executives at the chain said they planned to open 30 stores in New York State within five years.

John Muirhead, the owner of eight franchised Burger King locations in New England, is heading up Atlanta Bread’s expansion in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of the reasons he decided to open Atlanta Bread units, he says, is because the fast-casual sector has not really yet penetrated his New England. So far he has opened stores in South Newington and Windsor, CT.

The toughest challenge Muirhead says he will face in expanding the chain is finding space. “Real estate is our biggest obstacle,” he said. “There’s not too much development, so you have to wait for things to turn over.” Atlanta Bread is looking for 5,000-sf stand-alone or end-cap stores. The company is also considering the rollout of express restaurants that are half the size of its normal units in airports and urban areas, Muirhead says. The three New England states Muirhead represents could support about 20 Atlanta Breads, he says.

Fast-casual chains have had trouble expanding in the Northeast because of high rents Stephen Spence a restaurant analyst at Independence, OH-based Longbow Research. “It requires that the restaurants have better sales than they would have in other areas,” he said. Additionally, those chains are facing competition from fast-food restaurants that have increased their upscale offerings.

Atlanta Bread first opened here in the suburb of Sandy Springs in 1993. The restaurants offer bread baked on premises, as well as salads, sandwiches and soups.

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