Panera is testing three new Panera To Go cafés, a digitally powered hybrid concept designed to bridge the gap between its cozy full-service restaurants and impersonal ghost kitchens.
"Our guests have created new habits over the past few years, and one of them is more off-premise dining," says Chris Correnti, Panera's senior vice president of off-premise channels. "We're addressing that with this new format, going into locations with a smaller square footage."
The first of these asset- and labor-light stores opened last month in Chicago, with locations in Washington D.C. and Southern California scheduled to debut soon.
Correnti says Panera's café experience is still at the core of the brand's identity, aimed at delivering a warm bakery-and-fireplace vibe. In newer stores, that also includes a drive-through lane. "That's always a top experience we want to provide our guests," he says.
But in more urban areas, with a higher volume of guests clamoring for takeout and delivery, the chain's added five ghost kitchens. "Those allow us to serve our guests, but there was no opportunity for a guest touchpoint or the true the Panera experience."
The Panera To Go cafés at about half the size of the regular cafes, provide some of the cozy ambiance it tries to create in the larger shops, along with the digital convenience.
Guests and delivery drivers pick up orders from Rapid Pick-Up and Delivery shelves.
And it gives the chain a chance to move into areas previously unavailable and potentially win new customers.
The St. Louis company says that with fewer front-of-house duties, associates can better focus on meeting customers' needs.
Correnti believes the new format will reach new customers and delight people who have eaten at Panera while traveling. And while many restaurants struggle with food that seems way less appetizing after the delivery excursion, "our food travels well, and it's well packaged.”
Just as importantly, it offers a brand connection. "It's powered by digital, but we can still extend that Panera warmth to the customer, and there is still that engagement with a guest. When they walk into our location, they still feel the brand."
In 2021, 81% of Panera's sales were via off-premise channels, including Delivery, Rapid Pick-Up, Drive-Thru and Catering. About 50% of all sales are digitally enabled.
Correnti tells QSR Land that as the company evaluates test results, it will also decide whether it should introduce kiosks and catering orders to the new format.
"We want to know if kiosks are required, or if people using their phones and desktops to order ahead will be good enough."
He says the company is also looking closely at how much food is picked up versus delivery, and which hours of operation work best.
Advertising for the new concept includes digital and social, as well as CRM and email campaigns.