“In a post-COVID world, Panera is showing up for our guests and shifting with their ever-changing needs—whether they want to dine in or out, we have every possible option for them from rapid pick-up to delivery to curbside to contactless dine-in or drive-thru,” he adds.
When customers arrive, they’re greeted with an outdoor seating section and an updated “Mother Bread” logo that nods to Panera’s bakery legacy and its more than 30-year-old sourdough starter, says Chief Brand Officer Eduardo Luz. The insignia was refreshed to have the “Mother” directly facing customers, therefore “warmly inviting them to come break bread with us at Panera.”
The interior was developed with customer wayfinding in mind. The restaurant includes a pickup area near the door so to-go guests can enter/exit seamlessly without moving farther into the cafe and creating additional congestion.
“We were thinking about the efficiency of the entire experience for the customer and really at every single touch point that became the foundation of what we were trying to get accomplished,” Sopkin says. “We wanted this to be a more intuitive experience for our guests so that they fundamentally understand what the customer journey is, where they’re ordering, and how this flows, where they’re picking up there drinks. Take any of the guess work or confusion out of that.”
Placing an off-premises section near the entrance also signifies a shift in how Panera approaches delivery, Sopkin says. The chain built its own fleet of drivers in the years leading up to the pandemic, but the fast casual since moved toward an outsourced method. A little more than six months into the pandemic, delivery sales were up 100 percent, or more, depending on the market.
“We saw a pretty significant acceleration in that business overall as more and more people were migrating to the third-party delivery platforms,” Sopkin says. “Between the sales going up and then also changing the model and going to third party, that affected our design.”
Another goal, Sopkin notes, was to showcase what Panera was founded on—baking and fresh bread. An overhanging mirror reflects a multitude of treats, and bakery ovens and tables are in full view. In prior iterations, the process was more of a back-of-house discussion, but now, Sopkin says little is left to the imagination and baking has moved to the “heart of the experience.”
Although the restaurant industry is accelerating toward an off-premises-dependent world, Luz says, customers still value Panera’s dine-in atmosphere that “delights all their senses.”
“Our guests use our cafes as an extension of their own homes,” Luz says. “They cozily enjoy their meals by our fireplace. They love to watch our bakers create deliciousness right in front of their eyes and sample the latest creations. And of course, the aroma of freshly baked bread, straight from the oven, keeps our guests wanting to come back for more. The NextGen cafes incorporate all these rich dine-in experiences.”
For the back of house, the restaurant experimented with different layouts, but eventually opted for an integrated line, meaning food and beverages are produced in a centralized spot, regardless of how the customer orders.
The choice reduces labor costs and proved to be a more intuitive process for employees, Sopkin says. The size of the prototype can flex upward or downward depending on real estate, but in every box, the kitchen remains the same square footage; only the front of house and dining room seating changes.
In terms of drive-thru, Panera chose digital menuboards to ease friction and add a layer of engagement. Through geo-fencing technology, the restaurant is able to automatically pinpoint a MyPanera loyalty member when they arrive at the cafe. Once identified, the customer is greeted by name, and their experience becomes highly personalized.
For instance, consumers can easily re-order past favorites and Panera can leverage known preferences to offer recommendations and tips for better menu matches. In August, the fast casual reported 45 percent of sales were e-commerce, and its loyalty program comprised 44 million users.
During the pandemic, Panera’s pivot to more off-premises and digital orders was fueled by new deals like its MyPanera+ Coffee subscription program, which offers unlimited iced and hot coffee and hot tea for $8.99 per month—any size, any flavor, and redeemable every two hours. The company also debuted Flatbread Pizza, a portable food segment that saw record-breaking sales when dining rooms were restricted.
“Panera’s guests are very discerning,” Luz says. “They love delicious, chef-curated food that tastes amazing because it only uses the best ingredients. They also want omni-channel convenience as they live busy lives and don’t want to waste time.”