ResTech

Panera Gives Its Customers A Verbal Order-Ahead Assist

For QSRs, fast is the name of the game — but when it comes to innovation, the industry is anything but speedy. In the inaugural edition of the PYMNTS Restaurant Readiness Index™, a Bypass collaboration, QSRs scored a meager 38 on a scale of 0 to 100, when it comes to their innovation readiness. So, how can QSRs spin their innovation wheels? That’s a $230 billion question the Index answers after examining hundreds of QSRs — and it comes down to a handful of really important things. Find that, plus an interview with Panera Bread VP Mark Berinato, on the intersection of QSR technology and innovation.

When Panera Bread first rolled out its mobile order-ahead service in 2012, the idea was to attract consumers wary of waiting in lines for service. Five years in, the bakery-café chain is taking its restaurant readiness strategy to the next level with voice-enabled mobile ordering offerings.

Earlier this month, the St. Louis, Missouri-based company partnered with Google to allow customers to place orders using simple phrases like, “OK Google, ask Panera for delivery,” or “OK Google, talk to Panera.”

The service, which uses the Google Assistant’s displays menu, makes suggestions based on order history, walks customers through menu items and enables them to pay with their saved payment methods.

So far, it seems consumers are readily adopting mobile voice order-ahead. In fact, the company is registering an average of 1.3 million digital orders every week since the rollout.

PYMNTS recently caught up with Mark Berinato, vice president of digital experience and design for Panera Bread, to talk about changing consumer expectations and the future of mobile-enabled technology in the quick-service restaurant (QSR) industry.

“The biggest shift in the overall market, is [mobile orders] bordering on becoming just a standard consumer expectation for restaurants of all sizes — when, compared to a few years ago — offering mobile ordering was considered a groundbreaking feat,” Berinato said. “It’s especially true for restaurants in our space, when it comes to fast-casual and lunch spots.”

Life in the fast lane

Panera Bread, which operates 2,024 locations in the U.S. and Ontario, Canada, is primarily frequented by lunch-goers in the middle of a busy day.

Over the years, as the company’s bakery-cafés gained popularity, it became increasingly clear that its existing service model was slowing guests down and causing friction, Berinato said. Understanding customers and their needs has been crucial to devising mobile order-ahead efforts since 2012.

“We recognized early on that while we had done a good job of driving up business, we were dealing with something we referred to as the ‘mosh-pit experience,’” he explained. “You’d come in, have to wait in a long line to order your food, and then wait in a big crowd by the counter for your food to be done. So, when we thought about how to improve that situation, we thought, why couldn’t we just have customers place an order from their mobile phone and have it waiting for them on a shelf when they get there, so they don’t ever need to wait in [that] line?”

Panera Bread has since expanded its mobile order-ahead offering to make it more appealing to customers, continued to speed up service and eliminated friction that plagued early versions of the solution. It rolled out an improved version of its mobile offering, called Panera 2.0, in 2014, which included overhauls to its advanced ordering protocols to make the process faster and more convenient for guests. Berinato said Panera Bread has since seen mobile orders account for roughly 30 percent of all orders placed.

But, with consumers increasingly using voice-enabled assistants for day-to-day chores — with voice requests including everything from making restaurant reservations to ordering laundry detergent — enabling voice-based assistance on the Panera Bread app was a natural next step for the company, he added.

The Google integration further decreases the amount of time it takes to get orders ready for the customers. According to studies conducted by Panera Bread, voice-activated ordering is, “in many cases, more than 80 percent faster than a traditional app order.”

“For us, this partnership with Google was really part of that next step of evolving our customer experience,” Berinato said. “It’s how we can make pick-up even faster, even more convenient. We think that ordering through Google Assistant can really help us get there.”

A more intelligent mobile ordering future 

For Panera Bread, the voice-activated ordering partnership with Google isn’t just about serving customers more quickly. It’s also about being one of the first national brands to embrace the next stage of mobile ordering, according to Berinato.

Most recently, the company looked to grow by reacquiring old subsidiary Au Bon Pain nearly a decade after the brand was first sold off in favor of Panera. The buy is believed to be aimed allowing Panera to expand with a small footprint and to squeeze into high-traffic locations (including transport terminals, schools, hospitals) where the chain is particularly well-established.

And, while artificial intelligence (AI)-based virtual assistants, like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, while still in their nascent stages, are seeing a huge uptick in usage. When announcing the integration with Google, Panera Bread president Blaine Hurst called the technology “the future.”

“We know the industry is still in its infancy,” Hurst said in a press release. “While know we still have a lot to learn, we’re proud to develop, test and refine this capability in partnership with Google. In the long run, the ease and convenience [of this technology] will be meaningful to our guests.”

Hey lines, it turns out your days may be numbered.

For all the latest findings, analysis and trends, please download the Index by clicking the button below.

About the Index

The PYMNTS Restaurant Readiness Index, a Bypass and Bank of America Merchant Services collaboration, is designed to analyze how QSRs are doing when it comes to innovation. Namely, are they being innovative and are technological features enhancing customer experiences?

To complete the Index, PYMNTS studied 178 QSRs, including six large restaurant chains, in 10 different segments and two groups of restaurants. The bulk of the sample includes 172 restaurants that range from eight to 2,630 locations.

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