The rise of chicken sandwiches dates back to 2019, when Popeyes lit the chicken sandwich category on fire with its viral sensation, helping the brand triple foot traffic and increase AUV by $400,000. Quick-service competitors took notice and followed with their own iteration, including McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Zaxby's, Wendy's, Jack in the Box, and more.
And like Popeyes, the innovation has proved fruitful. Months after McDonald's released its crispy chicken sandwich lineup, the company said the product was exceeding expectations and that restaurants were selling "substantially" more sandwiches than previous versions. Also, in August 2021, Restaurant Brands International CEO Jose Cil said Burger King's Cil Ch'King sandwich showed healthy volumes, doubling the number of its previous chicken sandwich, and expanded the chain's demographic to those with higher incomes and spending power.
Panera has spent the past few years extending into new food categories and building innovation around all times of day. For instance, in 2019, the fast casual rolled out warm grain bowls systemwide, which were developed for two years and dubbed the "biggest product launch of the year" by then Chief Growth and Strategy Officer Dan Wegiel. The chain followed that up with the 2020 launch of flatbread pizza, a portable product built to compete in the increasingly off-premises industry.
While the chicken sandwich, grain bowl, and flatbread pizza fuel the lunch and dinner dayparts, Panera's coffee subscription program drives morning traffic. The service was announced in February 2020 and hauled in roughly 100,000 signups during the initial rollout. Thanks to a social media campaign in June of that year, 700,000 people joined the program in three weeks.