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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Suzanne Fortier takes a phone order at the Panera Bread on Amherst Street in Nashua.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Suzanne Fortier took the phone call at Panera Bread in Nashua that caused the recent stir on Facebook.
Saturday, August 18, 2012

Nashua Panera Bread manager praised for accommodating dying grandmother

In a social media age, small acts of kindness can make giant waves – just ask Sue Fortier.

Fortier, of Rindge, a manager at Panera Bread on Amherst Street in Nashua, is getting national attention for whipping up some soup and cookies for a customer with a special request.

It sounds simple enough. But according to Facebook, more than 610,000 people have shared Fortier’s story, which goes like this:

“My grandmother is passing soon with cancer,” Brandon Cook, 21, of Wilton, wrote on his Facebook wall last week. “I visited her the other day and she was telling me about how she really wanted soup, but not hospital soup … she really would like some clam chowder from Panera.”

That Tuesday, Cook called the bakery-cafe chain, looking for the chowder. But when he learned it was only available on Fridays, he asked for a manager to see if an early order could be made.

Fortier took the call.

“The first words out of his mouth were, ‘I have a very strange request,’ ” Fortier said. “Of course I’m all ears. He told me about his grandmother and he told me what was going on, and there is no second-guessing something like that. You just do it.”

Fortier immediately had her staff prepare the clam chowder that was meant to be served Friday. She also threw in some cookies with it, free of charge, for Cook.

“It wasn’t that huge,” Fortier insisted. “I said whatever you need, whenever you need, just keep me posted during the day when you’re going to pick it up.”

According to Cook’s Facebook post, however, the token was quite the contrary.

“It’s not that big of a deal to most, but to my grandma it meant a lot,” he wrote. “I really want to thank Sue and the rest of the staff from Panera in Nashua NH just for making my grandmother happy.”

Apparently, the gesture has made more than half a million strangers happy, too.

Cook’s mother, Gail, shared his message on Panera Bread’s Facebook page, and praises continue to flood in for the restaurant, Cook and Fortier.

“The milk of human kindness,” one commenter wrote. “Always a good recipe.”

“We all have the ability to extend kindness and love to others,” another said.

“You see there are still angels around,” another wrote.

The response is pretty good news for a food franchise at a time when chains such as Chick-fil-A are getting a controversial buzz for their CEO’s stance on gay marriage.

“A lot of people on Facebook are talking about other restaurants that get bad media or have bad reputations, and here over 600,000 people have put a hand on each other’s shoulders and said, ‘This is awesome,’ ” Fortier said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Fortier, who started working at Panera five months ago, part of a 17-year career in the food service industry, said she left her previous post as a kitchen manager to be able to work out front with customers.

Now she has more experience than she ever bargained for.

“I’m really baffled by the whole thing,” Fortier said. “When somebody asks for a hand, you give it. … Now every time I turn the computer on or pick up the phone, there’s something else going on.”

People from as far away as Tennessee and Florida have called Fortier at work to applaud her or to share personal stories of caring for a sick loved one.

“It’s a little emotional,” Fortier said. “A lot of people are sharing what they’re going through, their loved ones that are passing away, their pain.”

Fortier said she is normally pretty private.

“I’m glad that they feel like they have somebody they can reach out and talk to,” Fortier said, “But Tuesday night, I’m trying to do inventory and I’m crying on the other side of the phone.”

Cook also told Fortier he has heard from people in Scotland and Ireland. He’s the one who should be getting the encouragement, Fortier said.

“He’s a great young man,” said Fortier, who is a mother of three boys of similar ages. “I really appreciate all the pretty things so many people have said about me, but this was Brandon. If he hadn’t asked for this, it never would’ve happened.”

And neither of them ever estimated the impact their connection would have on others, Fortier said.

“I just think a lot of people would do that,” Fortier said. “I think we underestimate human kindness.”

The Telegraph’s attempts to reach Cook were unsuccessful.

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or mgill@nashua telegraph.com. Also, follow Gill on Twitter (@Telegraph_MAG).