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How Branch Keeps Panera Bread Baking Technology Into Fast Casual Success

In the quick-paced world of fast casual restaurants, speed is just a fraction of the equation.

Now, more than ever, customer engagement and swift technological solutions -- baked into front and back of house operations, as well as the consumer’s pocket -- are more important than ever.

🚀 The Rise of Fast Casual

Fast casual dining remains an intriguing vertical in the American restaurant scene. Made popular by chains like Chipotle, Noodles & Company, Panera Bread, and Shake Shack, the goal is to occupy a space above that of fast food, but below sit-down dining.

In doing so, these establishments have been good at offering competitive price points with the benefit of healthier food choices and some of the differentiators like healthier, organic offerings. They begun in the early 1990s, but really came into national prominence during the recession by attracting consumers with limited spending power.

Most recently, they’ve seen increased popularity from Millennials who have devoted more of their discretionary budgets to eating out. Their desire to eat healthier options has been one of the driving forces that is causing many fast casual establishments to rethink their strategy and offerings.

According to research from Business Insider, 83 percent of Americans think that fast food from the traditional franchises isn’t healthy.

No matter how you slice and dice it, increasingly educated and savvy consumers are forcing entrenched fast casuals and quick service restaurants (QSRs) to think about their options, and how they’re delivered to the consumer’s plate.

Clean eating. Gluten-free. Locally-sourced. Organic. Sustainable. Farm-to-table.

At the same time, an entirely new crop of entrants, many of them capitalizing on consumers hungry for healthy options and willing to spend more. Names like Grabbagreen, Sweetgreen, CoreLife (sensing a theme, yet?) are all coming on the scene, often charging double what fast food places charge. Upping the ante even more are new entrants that are focusing on healthy options that rival the prices of say, McDonald’s and Taco Bell. Places like LocoL, Everytable and The Kitchenette are turning pricing models on their heads, without sacrificing the ‘eat healthy and local’ ethos.

📱 Think Digital, Stay Relevant

All of this change and competition is really forcing traditional fast casual players to rethink some of their strategy. No longer is it fine to just think about switching up their menu items. Increasingly, they’re re-evaluating other aspects of business, from hiring and onboarding to process and technology.

One of the preeminent and most current example of this is with Panera Bread. If you’ve been into Panera lately, you’ve likely noticed many changes in the last year from mobile ordering, enhanced perks programs, rehauled mobile applications, and even delivery.

One of the original fast casuals, Panera Bread has always relied on its brand -- the food, and is now able to focus on the natural evolution for their brand, a step forward in the world of technology.

At a recent conference in Silicon Valley, Panera’s Chief Growth and Strategy Officer Dan Wegiel spoke about the challenges of becoming a tech-forward food brand.

“Before we even get to digital, the core of that is actually what we sell. It's the food, it has to be special, it has to be differentiated, and for us, increasingly rooted in wellness,” Wegiel said.

🤝 Start by Removing Friction

Like every successful restaurant chain, Panera Bread began with a single location, a shoebox-sized cookie store. Today, it has morphed into a national powerhouse with more than 2,000 physical locations, 100,000 employees, and a revamped mobile infrastructure that sees more than 40 percent of orders placed digitally. This last year, sales at Panera topped $5 billion.

By understanding the hurdles in front of them, and addressing them head-on, Panera’s executives have been able to successfully develop mobile solutions that have helped connect a digitally-savvy consumer base to healthy food options without sacrificing the brand credibility.

That they took notice of the challenges and understood what they could change from a technology perspective proved to be a good move.

“In recent years, we’ve seen a shift in what people expect from us as a brand. Today’s consumers are empowered by technology to get exactly what they want, when they want it, without much effort. We need to address this shift by updating our business practices for a digital-first world. If we don’t, our hungry customers will head elsewhere—to restaurants that are meeting their ever-increasing expectations,” explained Panera Marketing Senior VP Chris Hollander.

😎 Power of Personalization

As with any digital experience, the ability for it to continually learn and understand from your previous visits is a huge benefit and helps explain why they’ve devoted resources to their mobile experiences, ordering technology like in-store kiosks, and “My Panera,” a customer loyalty program.

Early learnings are that the digital advances are helping connect the brand to multiple generations, while keeping the brand fresh. “What we're finding, is that we're appealing to a younger customer, we're becoming more relevant to them” Wegiel said.

The more you use them, like any digital experience, the more it can learn about you. Data can help pinpoint areas of concern, improve communications, address scalability and speed processes, and even help determine future product iterations.

In the case of Panera, that could even mean helping to build entirely new menu items based purely on your personal desires and needs.

This new era of personalization has all sorts of benefits for a fast casual restaurant like Panera:

  • Data is a big part of personalization efforts. The more a brand can build personalized experiences, the more succinct and swift the end product will be.
  • A company that can use data, and therefore, personalization to help create entirely new experiences or food items based on what you desire is a company that is building relevance. In the food world, relevance means repeat visits, which equates to improved sales.
  • Personalization efforts helped the brand improve and scale engagement within its digital fronts by allowing consumers access to caloric informations (one of the first in the industry). Now, customers can see interactive menus and customize them accordingly.

If you’re beginning to think this sounds more like a tech company, than that of a restaurant, you’re on the right track. As digital experiences, customer engagement, and technology continue to shape our world, they’re also shaping how new industries and verticals think about their products.

The next evolution in this story for Panera is already getting them to think about what’s next: Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, smart home integration, and even conversational commerce (smart speakers).

“Data, allows us to really customize how we talk to customers,” Wegiel noted. “That's going to be a hallmark of where we go next in our marketing, communication strategy and our loyalty strategy.”

💪🏽 Giving Employees Flexibility

There’s another area that Panera has taken advantage: giving employees the flexibility to control their work schedules and communicate with colleagues.

Improving Employee Scheduling

One of the biggest hindrances to frontline hourly employees at fast casual restaurants is that of the employee schedule. Paper schedules and old-school notebook binders hanging from break rooms do nothing but create more work for employees.

A number of Panera associates have begun to use Branch Messenger with great success, and helping save time so they can focus on the more important tasks of moving Panera forward with their digital advances and customer engagement goals.

“Communication and getting a replacement to cover a shift were definitely some of the most challenging aspects of working at my location,” said Isabelle Giannetti, who works at a Panera in Avon, Ohio.

Another associate explained that the old methodology of scheduling was time-consuming and unproductive. “The Manager would write the schedule and we would have to call the store or go to the store to check the schedule,” Tranisha Shokes, Charleston, South Carolina said.

Today, at stores that leverage Branch, associates are able to receive schedules in seconds.

“The schedule is sent out via Branch and everyone is on the same page. There is no scrambling to figure out last minute the next time you work,” explained Isabelle Giannetti.

“Our manager makes the schedule and immediately posts a picture of it on the branch app so all of us can see it,” notes Alexandria Stanziano, of Avon, Ohio.

Turns out there’s all sorts of other benefits to using a platform that allows for easy access to team communications.

Employee absenteeism plummets: “It has an alert that lets me know i have a shift 2 hours before set shift. It helps remind me if i forgot,” says Plant City, Florida Panera associate, Caleb Bodtmann.

Employees who show up on time are engaged and excited to do good work. That's the case with Isabelle Giannetti: “With a hectic lifestyle, there is often not enough time to write something down in a calendar. Branch takes care of this for you and sends out reminders about upcoming shifts. There is no way you will miss a day of work with Branch.”

In emergencies, associates are always on top of things: “I think a few weeks ago we had to be out because of bad weather and because of the app i knew when we opened back up to come in for work," explained Tranisha Shokes, of Charleston, South Carolina.

Taylor Pipes

Taylor Pipes

I write stories about people that interact with technology that solves human problems. I love exploring and finding compelling stories at the intersection of technology and the future of work.

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