Panera announced Friday the opening of its first digital-only restaurant, joining a host of quick-service brands leaning heavily into their growing off-premises programs.
Officially called Panera To Go, the Chicago-based unit is the first of three takeout/delivery outlets scheduled to debut in 2022. The other two will be based in California and Washington, D.C. It features a slimmer front of house where customers and third-party delivery drivers pick up their orders from to-go shelves. The prototype, which intends to serve all dayparts, is designed for densely populated, urban areas that are unable to fully leverage a dining room. In the future, Panera will consider adding digital kiosks inside the store and a catering channel.
The unit is 2,500 square feet, compared to Panera's traditional 4,500-square-foot size. Ordering and payment for Panera To Go orders are only available on digital channels via web or app.
"We strive to make it easy for our guests to access Panera’s chef-curated menu, in the most convenient way. Panera To Go creates yet another access point for our guests, via Rapid Pick-Up or Delivery, in locations where Panera has not historically operated,” Eduardo Luz, chief brand and concept officer, said in a statement. “We are excited to launch into more trade areas, where we know people are craving for what Panera offers—freshly prepared delicious dishes, crafted by our chefs and bakers, using clean ingredients.”
At the end of 2021, Panera's off-premises sales mixed 81 percent, thanks to years of commitment to the channel. The fast casual rolled out Rapid Pick Up nationally in 2016 and launched curbside pickup in 2020. And at the conclusion of 2021, 44 percent of stores included a drive-thru. Panera's 3,500-square-foot NextGen design—opening in November 2021—features a double drive-thru, with one lane dedicated to mobile orders and third-party delivery. In the drive-thru, the location uses geo-fencing technology to identify MyPanera loyalty members. Once they arrive, Panera employees are able to greet them by name and personalize their experience. The chain is also experimenting with ghost kitchens, with five nationwide and more to come before the year ends.
The latest to-go-only design is yet another step into the future.
“Panera To Go is another way we can make our guests’ lives easier through digital convenience, which is always at the heart of what we do,” George Hanson, chief digital officer, said in a statement. “We are already leaders in providing our guest with an exceptional digital experience and adapted our digital channels to provide our guest even more options in the Panera To Go format.”
In the past couple of years, a number of brands have opted to remove the dining room, including Chipotle, Jimmy John's, Sweetgreen, Wingstop, Captain D's, and Tim Hortons. The trend hasn't been lost on casual dining either. Many full-service chains have opted to open to-go locations, like Buffalo Wild Wings and P.F. Chang's.