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Inside Panera’s ‘best of both worlds’ redesign

As pandemic restrictions ease, the fast casual’s new prototype hasn’t forgotten the dining room even as it beefs up off-premise convenience.
Panera Bread
Photo courtesy Panera Bread

Eduardo Luz, Panera Bread’s chief brand and concept officer, has seen other restaurant chains ditch their dining rooms to prepare for a post-pandemic world that is laser focused on off-premise convenience.

In debuting Panera’s new store design, the first of which is set to launch this November at a company-owned unit in Ballwin, Mo., Luz made very clear the fast-casual brand has not forgotten its dining rooms.

In fact, the 2,118-unit bakery-cafe chain is adding a “bakery theater” component as part of the new design, moving the restaurant’s ovens to allow dine-in customers to watch the cafe’s breads and pastries being made fresh each day.

Stores will have 60 to 100 seats under the new design.

“We believe we are the opposite of soulless eating,” Luz said.

Other aspects of Panera’s new design are a nod to the convenience consumers embraced during the pandemic:

  • A dual drive-thru, with one lane dedicated to digital order-ahead pickup and the other for onsite orders. The drive-thrus will feature digital menu boards.
  • Contactless ordering for dine-in, pickup and drive-thru. Customers can order via their phones and have food brought to their tables, cars or placed on a shelf for pickup.
  • A more intuitive in-store experience that helps diners decide whether to order at the counter, at a kiosk or via their own phone. “We believe more and more people will use their own phones as the center of the ordering process,” Luz said.

Panera expects to expand phone-based ordering systemwide this summer—not just at the redesigned restaurants, he said.

The labor model for food runners depends on the store’s location and time of day, he said.

The “bakery theater” is also being steadily added to all Panera restaurants, even if the location is not being completely remodeled, he said. The format is currently being tested at select units in Illinois, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Instead of having a baker work at night, the design calls for a baker during the day and ovens that are moved toward the front of the store.

“Baking is an art,” Luz said. “You deal with things that are magic. We want to create this magic in front of the guest. There’s an elevated aspect of hospitality. We want our guests to interact with our bakers. We believe that this transforms the experience. It’s something you would expect at your corner bakery.”

Panera Bread

Redesigned stores will be about 20% smaller than traditional Panera locations, with some of that real estate allocated to the expanded drive-thrus.

Currently, 60% of all Panera locations have drive-thrus, Luz said, a format that is growing in the “high double digits.”

“Those cafes are on fire,” he added.

With the digital menu boards, the new drive-thrus will add a layer of personalization for Panera’s 43 million rewards members, he said.

Luz declined to say how many new stores are slated to open after the first next-generation design in November. But he said all new stores and remodels going forward will follow the new design.

Luz calls the new prototype a “best of both worlds” design. But placing equal emphasis on both dine-in and off-premise service can be a challenge in what is a historically difficult labor market, he said.

“It’s definitely challenging,” Luz said. “We’re hiring 1,000 people per week.”

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