Panera Bread wants to be the new corporate cafeteria — even if employees are still working remotely or only popping into the office a few days every week.
The soup and sandwich chain, which claims to have been the largest restaurant caterer in the U.S. before the pandemic, has been working on several initiatives to adapt its catering business to how the U.S. workforce has changed.
Demand for Panera’s catered meals, which primarily comes from companies and universities, cratered during lockdowns as many workers stayed home.
Now, many employees are preparing to return to the office, if they haven’t already. A CNBC survey conducted in June found that 45% of respondents expect to have a hybrid workforce model in the second half of 2021. Roughly one-third of company executives who participated indicated that they’ll be following a majority in person model instead.
“When you have certain people coming in on certain days, some people not coming in at all, how do you maintain that culture, collaboration, relationship?” said Chris Correnti, Panera’s senior vice president of off-premise channels.
One of the initiatives that Panera has been working on is to cater company meetings, no matter where that company’s employees are working. Panera’s large restaurant footprint, which includes more than 2,200 locations, makes it possible. Correnti said it has catered meetings with hundreds of employees spread out across the country.
After testing the program with its corporate and higher education clients, Panera recently rolled it out as an option for its loyalty program members. Its rewards program boasts more than 40 million members. Later this year, the chain plans to make the program available to all of its customers, as long as they pay with credit cards. Once it’s open to the general public, the program won’t be just for business events but will expand to personal celebrations like remote baby showers or graduations.
The second initiative that Panera has been working on is scheduled group ordering for companies. Individual employees order and pay for their own orders at a discount, but the whole order is delivered as a group at a set day and time.
“It’s an option that’s gained traction as internal cafeterias struggle to reopen,” Correnti said. “We’ve heard from a lot of companies that this is great because people don’t have the comfort or availability to leave the building and find somewhere else.”
He added that the option can be a great incentive for employers to encourage workers to come back into the office on a certain day, even if the company offers more flexibility.
In the six months since the program has started, it already has more than 250 locations enrolled, including Fortune 100 companies.
Because Panera is privately owned, it does not disclose financial results. JAB Holding, the investment arm of the Reimann family, has owned the chain since it took it private in 2017. New York Times’ Dealbook reported in April that JAB completed an $800 million refinancing deal for Panera Bread recently, clearing the way for the sandwich chain to return to the public market. In June, a fast-food and 7-Eleven franchisee bought Au Bon Pain, a subsidiary of Panera, for an undisclosed sum.