JANESVILLE, Wis. (WMTV) – For 37 years, Tom Widner has been coming to the same address for work: 2753 Milton Avenue in Janesville. In 1984, he was just a teenager when he started working at the Ground Round restaurant.

Well, I was as a junior at Craig (high school) and I started as a dishwasher and a bus boy about a month before my 17th birthday,” said Widner.

He stayed with the company into adulthood, working his way up the chain until the restaurant closed in 2013. Then six months later, he received an offer from Panera Bread to manage the new restaurant coming to town. The restaurant would be located at the exact same address as the Ground Round.

“I was at home one day and I got an email that said ‘hey we found a site in Janesville and it’s 2753 Milton Ave.’ I was just like ‘I know that site, I know that address’ you know I’ve been going there for 29 plus years,” said Widner.

Today, Widner is relishing in his role as general manager. His hard work has turned into success as the company recently named him manager of the year. Widner says there are about 900 corporately owned Panera locations, and he was named to the top of them all.

CEO Niren Chaudhary recently delivered the good news to Widner in a Zoom call.

“That was surreal. I was a little nervous, to be honest with you. It’s not every day I get to talk to the CEO,” he said.

Widner’s customers are happy to see him get recognized for his dedication to his job.

“I have known him for a lot of years, all the way back to Ground Round,” said Gary Hilt. “He’s always been a wonderful manager, great man,”

Widner says the pandemic brought plenty of challenges. They had at least three employees test positive for the virus. That turned into a scheduling nightmare to cover those who were out with the virus and to cover those who were also deemed close contacts.

But despite the setback, Widner says business was booming.

“The thing I was most surprised about was just how busy we were,” he said.

Widner says sales through the drive-thru skyrocketed as did sales for curbside pick-up.

“We have a great product. We really do. Our food is clean, a lot of people come here because of that and I feel we do a really good job,” he said. “We have a great staff. I have some people who have been with me since day one.”

Widner says he’s had opportunities to move up within the company, but he is just fine with his current position.

“I’m pretty content doing what I’m doing,” he said.

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