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Panera Bread doubles down on alternatives to dine-in service

The company has beefed up "off premise" services, which include delivery, carryout, and drive-thru sales as well as catering
Credit: SLBJ

ST. LOUIS — Panera Bread Co., the Sunset Hills-based operator of the bakery-cafe chain, has revamped its catering program to accommodate changes the pandemic brought to its business customers, with more changes to come.

The company also has beefed up other so-called "off premise" services, which include delivery, carryout, and drive-thru sales as well as catering. Panera's off-premise sales went from 40% of total sales to 85% during the pandemic, officials told Business Insider.

According to research firm Technomic, about 49% of operators in the annual $60 billion catering industry have seen sales decrease during the pandemic.

"As a general standard, the catering industry has been almost cut in half based on market research that has been shared with us. And you know, we've seen our sales also be impacted by that," Chris Correnti, senior vice president of off-premise sales at Panera, told Business Insider. Catering alone normally represents about 10% of Panera's sales.

After testing the concept in December, on Monday the company launched "virtual catering" to serve customers' virtual meetings or other events. Through an online account, customers can set up email distribution of digital vouchers that allow virtual event attendees, such as remote workers or clients, to place their orders for curbside pickup or delivery.

“An online version of catering will look like all of us sitting around a Zoom meeting with our food arriving at the same time,” Panera Bread CEO Niren Chaudhary told Nation's Restaurant News. “That is a disruptive way of serving the same needs consumers have in a different way that is more convenient and relevant in a world that looks different.

Long before the pandemic, Panera had developed technology to accommodate customers beyond inside dining, installing ordering kiosks in its stores, offering rapid pick up through its app and adding drive-thru lanes.

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