Like many quick-service chains across America, Panera Bread finds itself at a COVID-19 crossroads. The need to court and remove friction from an off-premises swell, yet also the desire to guard the gathering-place DNA it’s long differentiated against.

This meeting of two camps led Panera to create a fresh design, dubbed the “Next-Gen Café,” which makes key changes on both fronts, and tries to combine them in ways Panera hasn’t attempted before.

Built with strategic design firm ChangeUp, it includes enhanced digital, personalized operations, as well expanded more drive-thru access. However, “the brand is still betting on dine-in,” Panera said. And so there’s comfortable seating around the fireplace and a focus on the chain’s craft bakery experience.

“Innovation is core to who we are and with our new next-generation Panera concept, we are doing what we’ve always done—keeping a personalized experience for the guest at the heart of everything we do,” said Eduardo Luz, chief brand and concept officer, in a statement. “We’re doubling down on what has always made Panera unique—creating human connection through caring associates and a warm, inviting environment filled with the smell of freshly baked bread—while continuing to be a leader in digital access for the off-premises world.”

The Next-Gen unit will debut November in Ballwin, Missouri, right outside of the chain’s hometown of St. Louis.

Some updates:

Craft bakery experience: To the earlier point, Panera is moving its bakery ovens to the front of the restaurant, in full view of guests. Customers will be able to interact with Panera’s bakers, “experience the baking and smell and see the fresh bread as it comes out of the oven,” a brand spokesperson said.

At the drive-thru: Panera said it plans to “significantly increase” its locations with drive-thru in the future, and this new concept boasts a double-lane with one dedicated to Panera’s Rapid Pick-Up service.

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It’s no great mystery why Panera is diving down this path. Drive-thru accounted for 42 percent of all restaurant visits in April, May, and June of last year, according to The NPD Group. And while that number is sure to slide as dine-in returns, convenience isn’t going anywhere. Mobile and digital adoption soared throughout 2020, leading brands such as Starbucks, Noodles & Company, Shake Shack, and Chipotle to shift development plans to clear room for more drive-thru/pickup windows. Starbucks, for one, appreciated more than 50 percent of net sales in Q2 through the drive-thru, up north of 10 percent from pre-pandemic levels. Chipotle’s “Chipotlanes,” continue to drive 17 percent higher overall digital sales. And it expects to open roughly 200 new locations this year, with more than 70 percent including the feature.

Digital focus: Panera’s new concept will tout fresh digital innovations, including contactless dine-in and delivery, updated ordering kiosks, automatic loyalty identification, and a fully digitized menu in-café and at the drive-thru.

In October, Sara Burnett, Panera’s VP of wellness and food policy, said the chain’s off-premises mix of total sales doubled, year-over-year, to that point. Meanwhile, delivery sales were up 100 percent, or more, depending on market. Panera also boasts a massive 40 million member MyPanera loyalty base.

Contactless at the forefront: Panera’s new contactless ordering service will enable guests who choose a fully contactless experience to order from their phone for dine-in, Rapid Pick-Up, drive-thru, or delivery. Once the order is made, guests are notified via mobile alerts when their food is ready “minimalizing interaction with cashiers, kiosks, paper receipts, or pagers,” the company said. Not to be lost in the potential is the industry’s current struggle to hire workers. This not only frees up tasks off frontline workers, but it also allows Panera to focus employees’ efforts on more guest-facing and hospitality-driven duties.

Refreshed brand identity: These Next-Gen restaurants will introduce an updated Panera Bread logo and brand identity. The “MotherBread” logo is a nod to Panera’s more than 30-year-old sourdough starter from which all of its sourdough bread is still made today.

A changing guest journey: Panera said a lead focus was to make the guest journey more intuitive, from deploying clear and concise wayfinding on the exterior of the café to refining how the guest routes through the café after entering the front door. This includes the front-and-center bakery, ordering (through a traditional register or digital kiosk), and picking up food.

The new model is the latest update in a series of digital and menu innovations from the brand over the course of the last year, including Panera Curbside, the chain’s $8.99/month plus tax premium coffee subscription, as well as a new Flatbread Pizza category that expanded to five flatbread offerings.

Design, Fast Casual, Story, Panera Bread