Panera founder Ron Shaich talks leadership, future of restaurant industry

Panera Bread Chairman Ron Shaich, whose innovations in delivery, self-order kiosks, healthful menus and more have transformed the industry, today urged restaurant leaders to fight short-sighted thinking and stay laser-focused on what their customers are seeking, rather than the latest in bright and shiny technology. 

Restaurateurs should examine what guests want out of a restaurant interaction (a seamless experience, for example) and put in place the tools that can make that a reality, he told attendees of the 2018 Restaurant Leadership Conference in Phoenix, instead of the tech that executive leadership thinks should be implemented.

“You don’t need focus groups,” Shaich said. “The future is clear and it starts and ends with guests. … This business is tough. This business is dirt farming. The world doesn’t need another restaurant. You need to be crystal clear about what you’re focusing on.”

He urged young brands to carefully choose their funding partners and to seek out financing that supports long-term growth rather than short-term results.

“Get off the treadmill of continuous financing,” he said. “Entrepreneurs need to begin thinking of financing not as a corporate lifestyle event.”

Shaich this morning accepted the Restaurant Leader of the Year award at RLC. The award, whose presentation was sponsored by PepsiCo Foodservice, recognizes Shaich’s 36-year career reinventing the fast-casual chain and, in the process, an entire category.

“Thank you to our franchisees who stuck with me and my crazy ideas over the years,” Shaich said in his acceptance speech, which highlighted Panera’s evolution from the “croissant shop” Au Bon Pain into the fast-casual leader it is today.

Shaich stepped down as Panera CEO early this year, but remains the bakery-cafe brand’s chairman while also working with a small group of chain startups as an investor and consultant.

Before his departure from Panera, Shaich helmed the chain’s Panera 2.0 metamorphosis, a brand refresh that included self-order kiosks and delivery. Both amenities are now found widely at limited-service chains.

“The world doesn’t need us for the status quo,” he said of his fast-casual innovation.

Past Restaurant Leaders of the Year winners have included Paul Brown, CEO of Arby’s and Buffalo Wild Wings parent Inspire Brands; Greg Flynn, founder and CEO of Panera and Applebee’s franchisee Flynn Restaurant Group; and Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group and founder of Shake Shack.

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