How Panera Changed The Way Restaurants Sell Food

Panera is something of a game changer in the world of fast food and quick service restaurants. And for that, the restaurant chain has to thank its founder Ron Shaich, who sold his company to a German conglomerate in 2017 (via Fortune). From the beginning, Shaich told Boston Magazine that he was looking to create something different."You build something that some people want enough that they're willing to walk past all your competitors to reach. It's very tough to play as a generalist today, so you have to differentiate yourself. And you need to figure out today what's going to matter tomorrow. The world doesn't pay any of us to do what everybody else is doing. It pays us to figure out where the world is headed and to be there when everyone arrives."

Shaich says he eventually focused on delivering a experience that would make consumers feel respected, by serving what he called "real food" in an engaging environment. That concept would eventually become what we know as fast casual today.

Panera enabled tech innovation in the fast casual space

True to Shaich's word, Panera made an effort to make sure its clients were happy from the time they set foot in the restaurant to the time they got up to leave. Before Starbucks and McDonald's got in on the act, Panera was the first to offer free wifi at a number of its locations. It might not seem like it now, but it was definitely a big deal when it happened. It also dabbled in technology long before ordering by smartphone became a thing. 

Back in 2014, it rolled out Panera 2.0, which Shaich described to Forbes as an "an integrated, comprehensive, end-to-end solution" whose goal was to cut down on wait times, improve the accuracy of customer orders, and either minimize or do away with wait times altogether. Today, ordering by app isn't just an option fast casual chains can choose to pass on, it's practically a must-have.

Panera has made groundbreaking changes to its menus

Innovating within the technology space was just the first step. Panera also took a leap before other restaurants did, to voluntarily post calorie information on all of its dishes, and at all company-owned restaurants. USA Today reports that at the time Panera said it would make the change, the move to post calorie information was widely opposed within the industry. The company's chief concept officer Scott Davis said the move would "put everything out in the open, obviously. So when you look at making a choice between a soup with 100 calories and a sandwich with 300 or 400 calories, it puts it pretty clearly what's in your best interest." While everyone puts their calorie counts for all to see, Panera can say they did it way before everyone else was mandated to under the Affordable Care Act.

Calorie counts aren't the only information you can expect to see on a Panera menu these days — it has also created a special category to call out its climate-friendly items in a new "Cool Foods Menu." The meals are meant to have a lower net carbon footprint, which can help offset the meal's impact on climate change. The company says more than half of its entrees are considered Cool Foods.