Panera Bread has always had an eye on Fairfield County. The St. Louis-based chain, which already operates six bakery-cafes in the county, is strengthening its presence here by opening three more in Fairfield, Westport and Norwalk this year.

The company has signed leases for 4,700 square feet at Lake Hills Shopping Center in Fairfield at 2320 Black Rock Turnpike; 4,500 square feet where Jani restaurant once operated at 650 Main Ave., in Norwalk; and 4,800 square feet at Westport Plaza in the Post Road East in Westport.

"These locations are good spots because they have dense populations, and there was a void for a concept such as ours, so we decided we could expand in this territory," said Panera spokeswoman Linn Parrish. "Fairfield County is a great community, and we have received strong support from our customers in the area. We are encouraged that we can continue to grow."

The arrival of the three bakery-cafes also means more jobs. Each will have a staff of 45 to 65 employees.

Finding space at the Lake Hills Shopping Center isn't easy, but when it comes to getting a tenant like Panera Bread, management of the shopping complex found a way by mutually agreeing to an exit deal with the operators of Mesa restaurant, said Larry Roberts, a principal in Turnpike Properties with Al Kleban. Mesa is still operating at the center.

Turnpike Properties is the manager of Lake Hills, owned by the Kleban and Roberts families.

"We're fully occupied. We're very excited because they've been looking for a location on the Black Rock Turnpike for many years," Roberts said. "I think Panera will add significantly to the tenant mix."

Roberts credited Jason Wuchiski, senior vice president and principal at RHYS Commercial, for bringing Panera to the complex, developed in the 1970s by his father, Sam Roberts.

Panera would like to open in Fairfield this summer, according to Roberts, but Parrish said no opening dates have been confirmed.

The space at Lake Hills has had a bumpy history, according to Wuchiski, who said having a Panera bakery-cafe there will bring stability.

"It's such a good building. It's been changing hands a lot since it Pizza Uno moved out," said Wuchiski, who represents Panera in its search for space in Fairfield, Litchfield and New Haven counties.

Finding suitable space for Panera in Fairfield County is challenging, Wuchiski said.

"It's finding a location that has parking and figuring out ways to pay the rent," he said. "The big things (for Panera) are traffic, visibility, parking and nearby box stores that drive traffic."

Panera already has a restaurant at 596 Westport Ave., in Norwalk, but Parrish said it will not conflict with the new location.

MG St. David LLC and MG Huntington LLC, owners of the Norwalk site, and Juster Properties, owner of the Westport location, were unavailable for comment.

"I credit each landlord for working with us and their flexibility," Wuchiski said. "They (Panera) are extremely healthy financially, and they are publicly traded."

The long-term leases Panera has signed gives the landlords comfort, he said. "A 10-year deal with a financially healthy company is what every landlord wants."