Now that my husband Tony and I are empty nesters, we like to get out and have a little fun. So on a recent midweek morning, we decide to check out two new fast-food (oops! quick-serve) restaurants, both on the same day.

Our two stops are in Cordova, so we head east for lunch at Topz, a franchise from California located locally near Macon Road and Germantown Parkway. At first, Tony is a little grumpy about Topz (pronounced "tops"), which bills itself as a "healthier burger grill."

"I'm not eating tofu," he says, as we push open the door to a cheerful greeting from a server and flat-screen televisions mounted on warm red and gold walls.

There is no tofu on the Topz menu, just a selection of salads, including barbecue, Chinese chicken, and ginger grilled ahi tuna, along with "gourmet lean burgers" made with Black Angus beef (Tony's choice) or ground white turkey (mine.)

While the burgers differ — veggie burgers are also available — the toppings are the same: lots of freshly shredded lettuce, grilled onion, tomato, pickle, "secret" sauce, and a choice of cheese: cheddar, American, mozzarella, or Swiss. Whole-wheat buns amp up the nutrition, but white buns are yours if you ask.

Options for sides also are healthier twists on fast-food standards. Fries, onion rings, and chicken nuggets are baked, not fried, and come with four dipping sauces: ketchup, mustard, garlic ketchup, and barbecue ranch.

"Customers appreciate menu choices that are healthy and taste good," says manager Zack Oelsen. "Our 10-ounce salads are three times the size of salads served by most fast-food chains and with half the fat."

Topz, 1034 N. Germantown Parkway (758-0041)

Next up is Panera Bread, the popular café and bakery chain now located in Trinity Commons Shopping Center. Since we don't have the energy or money to shop until dinner, we opt for soup and bread to-go.

"It's 3 o'clock in the afternoon," I say. "At least it won't be crowded."

A wrong assessment, to say the least. There are 20 customers in line ahead of us, and the restaurant is packed with people of all ages who are vivacious and loving their food.

"It's a normal day around here," says Robert Udovich, the restaurant's general manager, who along with seven assistant managers and 97 employees handles 1,100 customers every day. "We see this level of business any time we go into a new market."

So what's the secret to success for Panera, which serves breakfast starting at 6:30 a.m. (bagels, baked egg soufflés, and sandwiches on ciabatta), lunch (bacon turkey on tomato basil bread or a signature hot panini), and dinner (we had chicken noodle soup and a loaf of sesame semolina)? "It's our baked products," Udovich says. "Everything is made with fresh ingredients and no additives, like Grandma used to bake."

The variety of goodies at Panera is a little overwhelming: shortbread, pumpkin muffin, wild blueberry scone, caramel pecan brownie, braid pecan pastry, and the local favorite, cinnamon crunch bagel, to name a few.

Although busy until closing at 9 p.m., Udovich expects a slight slowdown when additional locations open this year. Panera is planning 12 more stores in the Memphis area, including sites in Germantown, on Houston Levee Road in Collierville, and at the former Walgreens site in Laurelwood Shopping Center. "We're not sure about the exact date for East Memphis," Udovich says. "We are shooting for May."

Panera Bread, 714-39 N. Germantown Parkway (754-5813)

Speaking of quick-serve, here's how I would start my perfect day: with a Dunkaccino (coffee, hot chocolate, and whipped cream). Lucky for me, Dunkin' Donuts opens its first area location in Cordova, close to the intersection of Whitten Road and Goodlett Farms Parkway, on March 11th. The restaurant is showcasing an updated design and "oven-toasted" menu, along with coffee beverages and more than 50 varieties of donuts.

No opening date is set for the Dunkin' Donuts in downtown Memphis, according to Lynette McKee, vice president of franchising. But here's some good news while we wait: The chain expects to open 24 restaurants locally with build-outs completed within five to seven years.



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