Panera Bread may be on the brink of changing the way customers order fast food.
The trend-setting dining chain is combining several technologies -- from store kiosks to online and mobile ordering -- that will cut the number of cash registers at most stores when the changeover is complete in late 2016.
The fast-casual chain could play a serious role in fundamentally changing the way consumers order fast food . For decades, the $200 billion fast-food industry has relied on a system that often results in long lines at cash registers and at drive-thru windows. Others fast-food giants -- from Domino's to Pizza Hut to Chipotle -- are experimenting, too. But Panera appears to be one of the most ambitious combinations of technologies geared at speeding-up service.
"Our mission is to never have a customer wait," says Panera founder and CEO Ron Shaich, in a phone interview. He's acutely aware of -- and frustrated by -- the current series of lines that customers must often stand in to order; pay for and pick up food in most of Panera's 1,800 restaurants. "It's like a game," he says.
That's about to change big-time. The most visible change: ordering kiosks are being phased in at Panera stores nationwide, even as the number of cash registers is being reduced. Most stores will get four to eight kiosks. At the same time, an unspecified number of cash registers will be removed.
In a new twist for Panera: food orders will be delivered directly to tables. Some employees who worked at registers will, instead, move to delivering or preparing food, says Shaich. There will be no jobs cut, he says.
Customers also will be able to order from their mobile phones or laptops while in Panera. And they'll be able to place "to go" orders via mobile or online up to five days in advance -- and pick up the orders at a pre-set time.
Kiosks are now in some Panera's in the Boston and Charlotte markets and will expand to another 150 locations this year, Shaich says.
So seriously does Shaich take the effort for faster service that, he says, he's worked a day a week on this project for the past four years. Shaich call it the most complex project he's worked on since founding Panera more than three decades ago. The tech upgrades will cost about $125,000 per store, he estimates.
Panera is on the cutting edge with the system. One restaurant industry consultant says that faster service -- particularly via mobile ordering -- is the single most talked-about issue at industry conferences. "The smart phone is now your wallet," says Dennis Lombardi, executive VP at WD Partners.