I used to sit half-awake, squeezing in a morning shift at the Midtowne shopping center before heading to class or work, watching a neverending stream of moms, busy business folks, people sporting colorful yoga pants and other early risers pop in and out of Paninis & Co. I’d think to myself, “They make 7 a.m. look fun and breezy. What’s so great about getting out of bed that early if it isn’t a cup of coffee?” The answer is The Happy Camper ($6.49 small/ $7.99 medium/ $9.99 large), a creamy green smoothie packed with protein and iron that surprises you with a peanut butter and banana twist.

“The Happy Camper” at Paninis & Co.

On the occasions I’ve gotten the chance to stroll in with the lunch crowd, it was always warm and inviting to see the staff and general manager, Benjamin Hoanzl, greeting all guests and families like regulars. “We get to have fun,” Hoanzl said. “I love being able to walk out into the dining room and talk to people. Our customers are vocal and involved. If the customer says it isn’t good, then it has to go.” Hoanzl’s goal as the new general manager is to remain transparent. He says he wants to “eliminate national food distributors as best [he] can” by promoting community and home-grown ingredients so customers know where their food is coming from. 

On my most demanding days, with a commute from Little Rock to Conway, I’d grown accustomed to grabbing a scoop of the Smoked Turkey Salad for late lunch on road. As an appetizer served with pita chips ($5.99) or over a bed of greens, Craisins, and sunflower seeds ($8.99), the texture and flavor made it impossible to nibble rather than scarf down.

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While Panini & Co. offers vegan and vegetarian options, Hoanzl says the goal is to “provide variety for everybody.” He hopes to accomplish that goal by offering vegan and gluten-free substitutions for the majority of Panini & Co. menu items and by using premium products like Boar’s Head meat. A local favorite and one of my new go-to sandwiches, The Hot Chick ($8.49), comes with Boar’s Head sliced chicken, pepper jack cheese, jalapeños, red onion and spicy ranch on sourdough bread. Even through all the spice, the freshness of those ingredients still shines through. It’s true to its name and not for the faint of heart. If you can’t handle the kick, you can choose from a variety of original recipes like the Paninis Turkey Havarti and Apple (TH&A) Sandwich ($7.99), or opt for a unique spin on a classic sandwich like their Reuben Reimagined.