US bakery-café chain Panera Bread as today (Wednesday) announced a new franchise group to develop 18 new outlets in California's San Bernardino and Riverside counties under an agreement with R & S Bread Group in California.

Led by Steven J. Fricker, the group plans to open the first bakery-cafe in the area in August 2005, with the rest developed by 2010.

"With his vast experience operating highly successful restaurant franchises in the California market, Steve Fricker will bring a wealth of knowledge and insight to Panera Bread," said Mike Kupstas, senior vice president and chief franchise officer of Panera Bread. "We believe that Fricker's commitment to operational excellence will help him to establish Panera Bread as a leader during its expansion in the state of California."

Fricker has worked in the restaurant industry for more than 25 years, holding prominent positions with Jack in the Box and Outback Steakhouse. Most recently, he served as Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for all of the Outback Steakhouse franchises in California.

"I am thrilled to be a part of Panera Bread's expansion into this exciting market," Fricker said. "I am confident that the people of California will quickly recognize our great tasting food, welcoming environment and tradition of handcrafted, artisan breads."