Panera Bread is the latest restaurant chain to announce a new design inspired by changes in consumer behavior during the coronavirus pandemic.
Its new layout looks to transform the soup and sandwich chain into a local neighborhood bakery — just with a little bit more tech savvy. In a bid to build customer loyalty, it is adding familiar touches to make the in-restaurant experience more personal than visiting a nameless chain, while its use of technology is meant to make the visit as seamless and easy as possible.
Taco Bell, Burger King and Shake Shack are among the eateries that have unveiled bold plans for locations with less seating, double drive-thru lanes and more technology. Panera’s design has those features as well, but it’s setting itself apart from the pack by including the dine-in experience, too.
“Of course we are adapting to an off-premise world, with convenience and access and all that, but also we are doubling down on the dine-in experience, which makes Panera so special,” chief brand and concept officer Eduard Luz said in an interview.
Like Starbucks, Panera has long used comfortable seating at its locations as a way to draw in customers who might use the restaurant as a meeting place. Luz said diners are returning to existing Panera locations as states roll back COVID-19 restrictions. The Next Gen design still includes plenty of cozy seating — both indoor and outdoor.
For dine-in customers, Panera wants to create an experience that reminds customers of their neighborhood bakeries. For years, the chain’s bakers have come into the cafes at night to bake fresh bread. The Next Gen design puts the bakery ovens out in the open and brings the bakers in during the day, so customers can smell and see the bread and pastries bake. Internally, Panera calls it “bakery theater,” according to Luz.
“You’ll be able to sample and taste whatever’s coming out of the oven,” he said.
Rendering of the interior of Panera Bread’s latest designSource: Panera Bread
At the same time, the new design gives customers a multitude of ways of ordering and receiving their food, all with convenience in mind.
“It’s very packed with digital innovation and personalization,” Luz said.
For example, if consumers use their phones to order, they can have an entirely contactless experience. They can also choose to order from a digital kiosk, at the counter or via the drive-thru. Additionally, the restaurant will automatically recognize loyalty program members, whether they go through the drive-thru or enter the location. Luz said that the company is considering several options to make this a reality, including scanning a code or microfencing technology.
“Once you are identified, the vision is that we interact and acknowledge and treat you as a person, with preferences,” he said. “It’s what you expect when you go to a neighborhood cafe.”
The restaurant will also include a double-drive thru, with one lane dedicated to picking up digital orders. About half of Panera’s current restaurant footprint includes a drive-thru lane, but double-drive thrus are more rare.
The first location with the new design is slated to open in November in Ballwin, Missouri, outside the chain’s hometown of St. Louis. Three existing locations are testing the open bakery format. Every Panera restaurant built or remodeled will follow the design, according to Luz, and most will be in suburban areas because of the drive-thru lanes.
“We don’t disclose how many, but we expect an aggressive expansion given how confident we are in the new design,” he said.
Panera is privately held by Krispy Kreme owner JAB Holding, so it isn’t required to disclose financial results. However, The New York Times reported in late April that JAB is considering taking Panera public again.