Panera wants to eliminate one of the biggest scourges of eating out — bungled orders.
The devil, as they say, is in the details, particularly when it comes to all the adjustments people want for the sandwiches and salads on Panera's menu. And the requested additions and subtractions are only increasing as Panera works to give people more ways to order.
Panera launched a campaign almost two years ago to modernize its operations. At stores that have undergone the transformation, customers can order online, on their phones or on kiosks in stores. There are signs the technological overhaul is working.
Sales in the most recent quarter rose 3.6 percent at company-owned restaurants, Panera said this week. And so far in the current quarter, sales are up 6.4 percent, which Panera says is a testament to its digital transformation.
Still, the system isn't perfect. When an Associated Press reporter visited a Panera in New York City last week, a side salad arrived with quinoa, despite a request to keep it off.
Here's what Blaine Hurst, Panera's chief transformation and growth officer, said about how the chain is trying to prevent errors.
Q: In restaurants that have undergone the transformation, you mentioned employees have to press a button on their work stations to confirm if an order was modified.
A: There are two buttons, they say "Mod" or "No mod."
It also used to just say "Bacon Turkey Bravo, add onions" on the order screen. Now, we list the full ingredients in the sequence they're supposed to be assembled.
We list the ingredients, then strike through anything that's supposed to be omitted in red. If you add something, it will be in green. And if it's a substitution, it's in yellow.
Q: What other new checks are in place?
A: When I hand it to that quality control person behind the counter, they ask, "Bacon Turkey Bravo, extra onion, right?" So there is verbal confirmation of every change.
That chatter is very valuable. Nobody is intentionally making sandwiches wrong. It's just people get in a hurry. Confirmation back and forth is huge.
Q: And there's another check after the order is assembled?
A: The "expediter" on the other side of the counter is once again confirming that everything in that order is correct. They're taking the chit for that order, checking off the individual items, then putting their signature on it.
Q: Do all the extra checks could slow things down?
A: It actually turns out this is faster. This is Manufacturing 101. By decreasing the error rate, you actually increase the speed of the line.
If you're dining in and your order gets messed up, what do you do? You walk up to the counter and say "You guys made my salad wrong. Can you remake it?"
Now I have an order that has to go back through the lines. It messes up the flow.
Q: What else are you doing?
A: We're looking at what happens when something goes wrong. So if I mis-make your order, and I say, "All right, I'll just take the onions off." Your experience just sucked.
On the other hand, if I say, "I am so sorry, can I remake this order? You go sit down, have a cup of coffee on me. Would you like a dessert?"
You went from pretty angry to, "They're humans. They made a mistake but they took care of me."
Q: So if Panera gets my order wrong, I get a free coffee?
A: No, but if we get your order wrong on a Rapid Pickup order, we'll give you a free dessert. There's a sign in our cafes that say that.
This is almost an incentive to get you to check your order before you leave.
It's also a reminder to our associates, because we really don't want them giving away a lot of free cookies.