Fast-casual chain Panera Bread, which has more than 2,100 bakery-cafes in the United States and Canada, is looking to drive digital orders by extending drive-thru ordering opportunities beyond the restaurant into consumers’ own cars. On Tuesday (Sept. 6), the company kicked off a partnership with Apple’s CarPlay, according to an announcement emailed to PYMNTS.
Through the partnership, iPhone users who are members of Panera’s MyPanera loyalty program are able to order via the fast-casual brand’s app, and the brand’s Unlimited Sip Club subscription holders are able to redeem their beverages through their car’s dashboard with CarPlay.
The news comes as consumers increasingly seek to get their food needs met in the comfort of their own vehicles. Fast-casual and quick-service restaurant (QSR) brands have noticed a major increase in drive-thru sales since March 2020.
Yet, concurrent with this increase has been the worsening of restaurants’ hiring and retention difficulties, meaning that, as there have been more orders to fulfill, there have been fewer employees to take and prepare these orders. As such, many brands are turning to self-guided digital channels. Panera, for its part, announced last week (Aug. 29) that it is trying out “Tori,” an automated drive-thru voice assistant for order-taking created by tech company OpenCity.
“The potential of AI drive-thru technology is incredibly exciting for us — we are eager to evaluate the performance of these tests and the possibility of expanding this technology in additional bakery-cafes,” Panera Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Debbie Roberts said in a statement.
These efforts come as staffing challenges affect restaurants’ ability to meet customers’ expectations. Findings from the 2022 edition of PYMNTS’ Restaurant Readiness Index, created in collaboration with Paytronix, which drew from a survey of more than 500 managers of quick-service and full-service restaurants across the country, reveal that around one in three restaurants report that their level of service has decreased as a result of staffing issues. Additionally, 28% of restaurants have implemented new technologies in response to these challenges.
Plus, Panera is not the first brand to enable consumers to order foods through their cars’ digital features nor to turn to voice ordering technology. For instance, in March, BurgerFi, a North Palm Beach, Florida-based fast-casual chain with more than 120 locations, kicked off a test of in-car ordering in partnership with Mavi.io via cars’ dashboards, either by touchscreen or by voice commands.
“Drivers … want to be able to shop from their cars safely and efficiently in order to make the most of each trip,” Cynthia Hollen, CEO and co-founder of Mavi.io, said in a statement at the time. “For retailers and service providers, Mavi’s in-car marketplace brings customers back to their store doors and drives new customer acquisition, sales and loyalty, ensuring they can meet their on-the-go customers’ needs for immediacy and convenience.”
Additionally, Enlightened Hospitality Investments (EHI) — a growth equity fund co-founded by Danny Meyer, the restaurateur behind Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) and Shake Shack — recently invested $10 million in restaurant voice ordering automation company ConverseNow, with an eye toward driving labor-saving innovation.