The Panera Bread in suburban Edgewater, New Jersey (population: 12,000), is a sprawling casual counter and dining area with a stone fireplace, soft music, and dim lighting. One weekday afternoon, in a booth near the large street-facing windows, a woman works alone, peering over papers and a binder, a cellphone in one hand and a pen in the other. Toward the back of the room, in front of half-empty plates of food, a small family watches their toddler play, a man and a woman examine a pile of spreadsheets together, and a group of college students chat about not being 21 yet.
According to Anthony Coleman, the designer and branding expert behind the Panera aesthetic we know today, "the original concept was designed to give the customer a feeling as though they were at home." In many towns across the country, this is exactly what Panera, founded 36 years ago, has become: a place to linger, gather, and break bread with others.
But changes in technology and consumer behavior have propelled the company, now the leading fast-casual chain in the U.S., beyond its traditional, cozy atmosphere. Today, Panera is seeing faster growth in its digital and to-go sales. In response, the brand is pivoting by beefing up options for take-out, delivery, and digital ordering, and it seems to be working — so far. Earlier this year, the company put itself up for sale and a bidding war ensued; it eventually sold to German conglomerate JAB for $7.5 billion (the deal was approved in July). A month prior, Panera announced plans to end the year with at least $1 billion in digital sales.
Today, Panera is among the top 10 quick-service and fast-casual restaurants in America — a ranking it first earned in 2015 — a list traditionally dominated by fast-food chains like McDonald's, Starbucks, and Subway. But of the bunch, only Panera Bread can be labeled fast casual, a type of restaurant that forgoes bright florescent lighting, paper wrappings, and assembly lines for more refined touches. In Panera's case, it's always been fireplaces in the dining areas, metal silverware, and rustic bread displays that set it apart from the Golden Arches and company — testaments to its roots as a wholesome small-town bakery.
So how did a small Midwestern cafe become America's most successful fast-casual chain restaurant? And can it maintain the image of an artisanal bakery gathering spot in a world of online ordering, delivery, and apps?