May 4, 2015

Panera 2.0: The Bread Bowl Strikes Back


Panera Bread is the kind of place where people go to sit. It’s intentionally comfortable, encouraging and inviting lunch-goers to hang out in a booth or at a table, dunking sourdough in a bread bowl of their favorite soup, narrowly avoiding dripping broccoli cheddar chowder on their computer. Loiterers and workaholics alike occupy the eatery with laptops, books, and newspapers, their finished food sitting in front of them, no longer providing an excuse to remain seated at their circular table for four. Panera is the culinary equivalent of Starbucks… At least, that’s what I thought. Turns out, Panera has switched gears and succumbed to the digital world with the introduction of Panera 2.0, which I saw first-hand last week at the location near our offices.

Panera’s new direction is geared toward hustle and speed, not atypical of what one would expect from an American lunch spot. The booths are gone. The chairs and tables have almost all vanished. In their place are touchscreens, where you can order your food in a technologically savvy way. The entire menu is there, on this computer screen at your fingertips, and all you have to do is place your order and wait for it to be made. Then you take your bag of food and leave. You can also order online or order for delivery.

The four big changes that Panera is making are:

  1. Offering rapid pick-up: Panera Bread customers can now order their food on the mobile app or in-store at one of the kiosks and pick it up at a designated counter without waiting in line.
  2. New employment opportunities: The addition of the kiosk has provided the need for associates called “expos,” who check customer orders for accuracy and also help if anyone has a problem using the new and potential confusing tech.
  3. Delivering to your table: “Customers can just go and sit down after ordering, avoiding the mosh pit all together,” Panera CEO Ron Shaich explained to investors. “This higher-quality experience differentiates Panera from fast food and even much of fast-casual. We think it is a more polished version of fast-casual.”
  4. Building catering centers: Panera is beginning to build special centers for distributing catering orders, which is a change from past stores, where all catering orders were prepared in the same kitchen as individual in-store orders.

Why is any of this important? Well, Panera’s new direction totally deviates from everything I thought I knew about their brand. This means that the need to “go digital” is clearly more important that maintaining their casual, no-rush eatery feel. If digital really is the latest and greatest, be ready to see other businesses make the switch. Personally, I am excited to see who succumbs. Doctors’ offices have already started switching to electronic medical records. Some hair salons have you fill out information at a kiosk on a touchscreen, including how you want your hair cut. Soon, the entire world will become impersonal and we can order everything from behind a screen (or hide in our homes like in the movie Surrogates). As GrubHub’s motto suggests, “No need to pick up the phone.”

(Photo: “Panera Bread” by Flickr user Mike Mozart via Attribution 2.0)