Panera Bread has quickly positioned itself as one of the premiere technology leaders in the restaurant industry, pioneering such technologies as geofencing for mobile pickup orders, coffee-brewing robots and the newest contactless dine-in features. But the bakery-café chain is very careful with what technologies it introduces: it has to be easy, frictionless, and relevant to guests, Panera senior vice president, chief digital officer George Hanson said on Wednesday during the CREATE digital deep dive session, “New Frontiers in Restaurant Tech.”
“We’re constantly thinking about how we can increase relevance and ease for our guests as opposed to being enamored of personalization technology for its own sake,” Hanson said.
Avoiding “technology for technology’s sake” is the mantra that has carried Panera throughout the pandemic and beyond. Whether they’re updating the Panera loyalty program with personalization capabilities or introducing a mobile pickup lane to the drive-thru, Hanson said they’re always trying to focus on ease and joy of experience. A good benchmark he said, is to be sure that even Hanson’s 70-year-old mother could place an order via any of the Panera omnichannel options with ease and comfort.
“Optionality is really about knowing how the guests want to access us and making those access points easy and frictionless,” Hanson said. “You have to think about the full journey, from pre-order and post-order. […] We embrace full transparency and making sure that post-purchase experience is there to help if we get something wrong.”
This is why he said it’s important to self-audit and be honest with yourself if a piece of technology is too confusing for everyday customer use or is just not relevant to customer needs.
Panera’s frame of mind also extends to tweaking its technology to fit customer needs, from larger rollouts like the geofencing technology or mobile pickup lanes, to smaller add-ons like personalized recommendations for loyalty app members so users can find their favorite menu items easily.
“We want to empower the guests to self-direct their experience,” Hanson said.
This method of self-direction can be seen across the Panera technology stack, from being able to choose their own loyalty rewards to seamlessly shifting from one Panera experience to another without confusion. Maybe one day they’ll want to quickly pick up their mobile order for dinner with the kids, and another day they might want to hold a meeting in-store at Panera. One of the crucial aspects of completing the brand’s omnichannel experience, Hanson said, was creating the self-direct in-store ordering technology, which allows customers to use mobile technology to place and receive their order in-store, without having to go up to the counter to pay or check on the status of their meal.
“We think about omnichannel access as expanding access to let the guest decide how they want to access us,” he said. “We had initially turned all of our attention to off-premises technology, but we realized that people were starting to crave that in-person, dine-in experience […] We took the best of that technology and brought it in-store. Now, they don’t have to stand in line or touch a paper receipt or pager.”
The final piece of the puzzle, Hanson said, is to make sure that no matter what type of technology the company adds to its repertoire, that Panera never loses its sense of warm customer service. In fact, certain technologies can even make it easier for that to occur. The newest coffee-brewing robot, which was created and rolled out in partnership with Miso Robotics, is a testament to letting AI free up some menial tasks (like checking the temperature of coffee), so employees can interact more with guests.
“This [Miso Robotics coffee] technology actually allows us to add more of that Panera warmth and touch,” Hanson said.