Panera’s off-premises business took a major step last year with the addition of order status notifications.

To-go and delivery customers are now visually guided through a four-step process on the app—reception of the order, start of preparations, quality check, and meal ready for pickup.

But what about dine-in customers? Off-premises has undoubtedly increased at Panera restaurants nationwide, but the sit-down occasion is still fairly large, says Chief Digital Officer George Hanson. And Panera is banking on that remaining true going forward.

“Let’s make sure that we’re as accessible to them as possible,” says Hanson, providing insight into the brainstorming process. “And we have so many guests who like to order on their phone. But we realized we didn’t have an option for them to do so for dine-in and have that food plated and have the most common dine-in experiences.”

The solution is Contactless Dine-In, which starts with MyPanera members and guests—who have push notifications enabled—being alerted of the new service as they walk inside the restaurant. Customers can go straight to a table and select “dine-in” on the app, thereby avoiding lines and shared devices, like digital kiosks.

As the order is being prepared, guests receive the same four-part order status notifications as off-premises guests. When their meal is ready, they simply walk over to the counter and pick up their plated order.

The option was rolled out nationwide on February 1 to most Panera stores, joining a host of other channels, including the traditional line, kiosks, Rapid Pick-Up, delivery, curbside, and drive-thru. All of those options were available prior to COVID, except for curbside, which was launched nationally in May 2020, just a couple of months after the pandemic began.

“We think that sort of digital integration into the cafe is really the next frontier for us,” Hanson says. “ … It helps both the guests take full control of their digital experience and their ordering experience, but it also helps our operations and cafe associates. There’s just less packaging, there’s less steps in bringing that order to a [Rapid Pick-Up] shelf. It’s a win for both the guests as well as for our cafe teams.”

“They don’t have to wait,” he adds. “They don’t have to wonder where the order is. They don’t have to know if the person in front of them is before them or after them. It’s sort of a just-in-time communication and pick up in the cafe.”

During those tests, one of the biggest learnings was ensuring Panera was putting out “smart push notifications,” Hanson says. That means only messaging guests walking in to order, and not those coming in to pick up their meal.

The fast casual also witnessed better-than-expected average checks, and received positive feedback from back-of-house employees, who appreciated the simplicity and transparency of dine-in orders coming through the app.

“The first thing you’ve got to really do—is this right for the guests?” Hanson says. “That’s where we usually start. That’s why we pilot, that’s why we do guest research pre-launch. Once we feel good about that, we bring in our operations partners and we do a check to say, ‘Hey, is this going to be neutral, is this positive, or is this negative in terms of complexity or simplicity?’ [Franchisees] loved the idea. We’re very excited about the pilot franchisees, as well.”

Hanson describes Contactless Dine-In as another example of Panera expanding its definition of what digital transformation truly encompasses.

Much of that work is exemplified through the recent NextGen prototype that served as one of the pilot restaurants for Contactless Dine-In. The store features a double drive-thru (one lane for mobile orders only), digital menu boards, and automatic loyalty recognition.

The design, which will be incorporated into future Panera locations, also elevates the dining room by inserting an overhanging mirror to reflect baked goods and placing the baking process in full view of guests.  

As for future digital innovations, Hanson says there’s “a lot of them,” but he can’t share any quite yet. He does know that dining rooms will always remain a part of those ongoing discussions.

“That’s important to Panera because it’s important to our guests,” Hanson says. “Our guests continue to vote for a lot of occasions where they’re wanting to come in, sit down. Whether that be meeting with family or friends or interviews or to write their next movie, that dine-in occasion is still really important to our guests. And as long as it will be important to our guests, it’s going to be important for us to innovate. We think the best way to do that is to bring the best of our digital ordering experience to the best of our dine-in experience.”

Fast Casual, Ordering, Technology, Web Exclusives, Panera Bread