Workers Reveal What It's Really Like Working At A Panera Drive-Thru

Panera Bread burst onto the scene in 1987 and has since expanded to more than 2,000 different locations while amassing 28 million members into its loyalty program and blessing us with the mortal sin of bread-sliced bagels. As New Yorkers clutched their pearls, the midwestern-bred fast casual chain went viral for their innovation. Sure, nobody asked for it, but we got it anyway.

Over the years, people have ragged on Panera for marketing itself as a healthier fast food option, especially because some of the menu items are flash-frozen and reheated (It's fast food, not a Michelin star restaurant, after all!). Nonetheless, the chain still appears to have a cult following, particularly when it comes to their often copied but never duplicated broccoli and cheddar soup bread bowls. How do they do it? You'd have to ask their employees.

Panera is responsible for employing more than 40,000 people, who have happily spilled the chain's secrets on the Internet. By now, we've already figured out what it's like to work at the fast food giant, but what about the drive-thru? According to employees, this part of the chain is notoriously hectic, with slow lines, despite that the company has been aggressively expanding their drive-thru capabilities for about a decade. So, how are the employees fairing? Here's what it's really like to work the Panera Bread drive-thru.

Panera's drive-thru is the "worst" part of working at the restaurant

Customers might enjoy Panera's drive-thru, but workers certainly don't. Employees told Business Insider that it's actually the worst job in the entire restaurant — even over scraping encrusted soup remnants off stacks and stacks of trays. A large part of this is because Panera isn't like other drive-thru restaurants. It's fast casual, but it's a couple of steps above a fast food joint. They're not just chucking things in a fryer and keeping it under a heat lamp, but that soup takes time to heat up in the thermalizer over, and Panera's options overall have a lot of varying ingredients that require attention to detail.

"Panera Bread's food is not designed to be served through a drive-thru," an anonymous employee told Business Insider. "The expectation of customers to be served quickly — like they would at McDonald's — ultimately causes a lot of frustration for both customers and us."

Even though Panera's menu wasn't designed to work with a drive-thru, the company seems determined to make it happen anyway. According to Fast Casual, the company underwent an aggressive expansion in 2012, where they planned to add 50 new drive-thrus on top of their existing 119 drive-thru locations. By 2019, they had drive-thrus at 40% of their cafes, according to Bloomberg.

Panera's drive-thru is slow, but employees are timed on speed

A main source of strife for both customers and drive-thru workers is the fact that Panera's menu items take longer to prepare than traditional fast food chains. In the best of circumstances, larger orders take about five to ten minutes. As one employee told Business Insider, "This doesn't even account for any mistakes made by the crew — if there were mistakes we could be looking at 15 to 20 minute ticket times." For this reason, the drive-thru tends to get backed up during lunch and dinner rushes, which is a very unfortunate reality considering Panera also times their staff on speed.

Speed appears to cause turmoil for employees at the drive-thru, particularly if people are putting in large orders. One anonymous employee on Reddit admitted that drive-thru workers "get in trouble with our higher ups for poor times" and placing a larger order "screws over an entire lunch average." "There's a lovely service called catering for orders over $50 that will take care of your order with care and dedication without screwing over the employees making it," they wrote.

Another anonymous employee on Reddit claimed that "drive-thru expectations are unreasonable at best" and "management will never be satisfied." In some ways, it's like they're set up to fail: "Having a vehicle out in less than three minutes when you are seven to eight [cars] deep and everyone is ordering hot sandwiches does not add up," they wrote.

Sometimes the Panera drive-thru window can also be the "easiest" job

Not all of Panera Bread's cafes function in the same way. Though the drive-thru is incredibly hectic, and employees are often forced to take on numerous roles, some busier  Panera restaurants are better at delegating tasks. Some locations put an employee specifically at the drive-thru window, where they're only responsible for collecting money and handing out orders. They serve as more of a cashier than a cook, and it's actually one of the easiest jobs in the entire joint.

As one anonymous employee told Reddit, "[The window] is honestly the easiest job in the store next to Dining Room. You just get people's money and give their food. Be prepared for a quicker pace back there though ... and check the food and make sure it's accurate as well."

The employee also claimed that it only takes about 20 minutes for someone to get acquainted with the job after being transferred from a different role. That doesn't sound too bad.

The Panera drive-thru is all hands on deck

Yes, some blessed Panera employees work at locations where the drive-thru window truly only handles drive-thru window orders. That doesn't appear to be the norm, though. Employee accounts across Reddit paint a picture of a work environment that's plagued by understaffing and forces drive-thru employees to have all their hands on deck as lines grow and managers put on pressure for shorter ticket times.

"I'm usually in Drive-thru doing EVERYTHING while being blasted by rude managers and blasted by customers and trying to train at the same time," said one employee on Reddit.

Another drive-thru worker on Reddit painted a hectic picture of a short-staffed café where they're essentially working solo and handling myriad duties that are typically split across an entire team. "At our franchise, the person in drive through is responsible for making smoothies/coffees, taking orders, taking money, grabbing food from the line, everything," they wrote. "And every time someone wants a bakery item, loaf of bread, or bubbler drink, I have to run out into the lobby to get it."

In short: if you ever see a frazzled Panera employee running out from the back, be easy on them. They might just be stuck on drive-thru duty.

Certain types of Panera customers really back up the drive-thru

Most people use the drive-thru to avoid waiting 20 minutes for food, but sometimes customers get in their own way. At Panera, drive-thru workers already have a tough time sending out speedy orders, but they're also faced with those "can I speak to the manager" types. By now, we all know them, sometimes because of what is now a classic haircut, but they come in all shapes and sizes. According to Business Insider, rude diners demanding refunds for minor — or flat-out fake — complaints are far from an anomaly. These people absolutely decimate the chance that the tickets behind them could be completed in good time.

One Panera drive-thru worker explained a situation where a customer ordered $90 worth of food from their car before demanding "a refund and a free new meal" over a "trivial complaint." "This caused us to have 30-minute ticket times for some people behind this person — who refused to move," the employee told Business Insider. "Instead of our managers telling them to buzz off, we ended up causing lots of our good customers to wait extreme amounts of time."

Panera's drive-thru opener is a "baller" because they're in charge of the eggs

Panera's openers get very used to early hours. After all, it was a bakery at some point, and someone's got to bake all that bread. As one former employee told Refinery 29, openers are expected to show up at around 5 a.m., and they often face myriad tasks. With the drive-thru, this can include everything from cutting bread while taking orders, pouring coffee and tea, setting up sandwich and salad lines, performing quality control checks, and, most importantly, cooking the eggs.

According to an employee on Reddit, the morning is the one time a day where drive-thru tasks are done on the main line. Sales don't typically ramp up until lunch, and whoever is cooking the eggs basically runs the show until the restaurant stops serving breakfast and switches to the drive-thru line for food preparation. "The main line opener is usually a baller, you can't have the main line opener be someone who moves slow," they wrote. "Running out of eggs is the #1 reason for the line getting buried in the morning."

Sometimes Panera employees need to ignore ticket times for their own sanity

Panera is often criticized for their prices, which are higher than other traditional fast-food offerings. This isn't typically reflected in employee wages, though. The average salary for a cashier is around $10 per hour, which some workers have deemed not anywhere near enough for the level of stress the job entails. If your order comes out slowly, it could truly be an instance of getting what management is willing to pay for — especially if they're only paying for a single person to oversee the drive-thru.

As one employee advised an anxious drive-thru worker on Reddit, "Don't worry about window times. If they want to low-ball labor there, point out you're doing it all yourself. You're not paid enough to do the work of 3-4 people. If Karen gets mad, boohoo." Another employee admitted that the key to surviving a solo shift is to ignore drive-thru ticket times despite managements overarching wishes: "Toss that s**t out the window," they said.

It's true: if you're swamped and making around minimum wage, what's the real incentive for breaking your back to get out speedy orders?

The Panera drive-thru can be a major headache – literally

By now, it's probably clear that Panera's drive-thru workers should have endurance to make it at the job. As one Reddit user put it: "Is every Panera's staff on the brink of insanity?" There's a lot to deal with — and some of that doesn't even have to do with customers. Those stationed at the drive-thru window are subject to everything that's going on inside and outside the café. This includes all the bells and whistles (or realistically, dings) that alert them of new customers and finished orders, as well as highway noise. In other words: this position is loud.

One drive-thru worker on Reddit admitted that the job "can wear you down," but much like living underneath an airfield or next to train tracks, you eventually adjust. "There used to be a period of when I would take ibuprofen every shift because I would get a headache from the dings, the sirens (emergency vehicles), and loud trucks," they said. Nonetheless, that employee still prefers their drive-thru gig. At the end of the day, at least it's never boring.