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How Panera is shifting its catering business for the COVID era

A new virtual catering channel and more are giving the brand hope for the sluggish revenue channel in the new year.
Photo courtesy of Panera Bread

Pre-pandemic, about 10% of Panera Bread’s business came from catering.

With that channel taking a massive, COVID-related hit, the fast casual is trying to jump start it with a couple of new programs designed for the reality of today’s catering customers.

“Catering has always been a foundational part of our business,” said Chris Correnti, Panera’s senior vice president of off-premise channels. “The pandemic sped up a process that was already happening, where the world is becoming more and more off-premise orientated.”

Panera started testing its virtual catering program at the end of last year with about 100 customers. Purchasers can have “digital vouchers” sent to anyone they’d like, for any amount. Unlike traditional gift cards, the vouchers must be used during a designated date and time, Correnti said.

People who receive the voucher can order what they’d like from their local Panera in advance of a meeting or other occasion. The person or company paying for the vouchers is only charged for what is used, not the full amount issued.

Virtual catering works well, for example, for pharmaceutical representatives who are not allowed to hand out gift cards, he said.

Users can order off of Panera’s full menu and are not limited to a catering menu.

“Operationally, this is more of a decentralized opportunity,” Correnti said. “Operationally, it is executed like an individual order.”

The chain has also launched the Panera For You catering program that takes advantage of workplaces whose onsite cafeterias have shuttered due to the pandemic.

Under this new program, an office can place a group order for its onsite workers. The orders will be delivered and dropped off at a central location in the building.

For example, a school might want to feed the limited number of workers in the building during this time, he said.

“We saw a lot of interest in this space,” he said. “We’re working with companies, setting up locations.”

Panera currently has one ghost kitchen open in the Chicago area, he said. It has been open a few months and the chain is evaluating the model to see whether it’s a good fit. Ghost kitchens could be implemented in a number of use cases, he said, including virtual catering.

“There are new occasions that are coming up,” Correnti said. “As a company, we’re always looking at that. These virtual meetings are a great example. How do we service our customers in those new occasions?”

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