Panera Bread extends contactless service and increases guest choice with SMS messaging

Customer service agent


of sales through digital channels (Q1 2022)

Earth with a chat bubble icon


locations enabled SMS

For many, Panera Bread is not only a warm bakery-cafe blanketed by the smell of their favorite pastry fresh from the oven. It’s a gathering place for family and friends — a fast-casual bakery-cafe known for its cozy atmosphere and convenient service. Founded as the St. Louis Bread Company in 1987, the brand expanded its reach and became Panera Bread a decade later.

The company has long prioritized its investment in the customer experience both in person and digitally. In a demonstration of eagerness to embrace emerging technology, Panera Bread cafes were once the most widespread provider of free WiFi hotspots in the US, making them a desirable destination. The Panera Bread mobile app launched in 2014, and today’s customers can order ahead, earn rewards, and manage their Unlimited Sip Club subscription on their smartphone. Customers have embraced digital ordering options, with 49% of sales being digital in the quarter ended Q1 2022.

In response to the pandemic, Panera Bread was able to roll out curbside pickup across the country in only two weeks, giving guests a safer option through its mobile app when they needed it most. Geofencing is a location-based service that triggers an action when a device enters a virtual geographic boundary. It is deployed across all locations, so the cafe is notified when guests arrive for curbside pickup, and the associate brings their order to them. Cafe associates can focus more on their guests, both in store and curbside, because of the simplified process.

However, only a smaller percentage of guests had the mobile app installed with permissions enabled to allow geofencing to function. Panera Bread wanted to expand this great frictionless experience to as many of their customers as possible. They also wanted to move beyond one-way push notifications to two-way communication between guests and cafe team members to eliminate any barriers in exceeding guest expectations.

“Implementing Twilio was an easy lift from our perspective. We were able to realize our vision for improved customer experience very quickly.”

Raj Anbalagan SVP of Digital Technology and Innovation

Extending great experiences to more customers

The need to improve the customer experience with direct communications prompted Panera Bread to look to SMS as a seamless, consistent channel of communication across website and mobile app orders. Twilio’s Programmable Messaging was cross-functionally vetted by the technology, business, and digital experience groups, who agreed to adopt it quickly.

“Implementing Twilio was an easy lift from our perspective,” says Raj Anbalagan, SVP of Digital Technology and Innovation. “We were able to realize our vision for improved customer experience very quickly.”

Panera Bread is pursuing convenience as a path to gain and retain loyal customers. Having fast-forwarded several years of digital adoption in a span of weeks to implement curbside pickup, Panera Bread is continuing with that trajectory. For example, they have now integrated a contactless dine-in service within the walls of the cafe. Guests can seat themselves and order through the mobile app at their table. Rather than rely on cafe pagers, customers are notified directly on their lock screen with an SMS when their food is ready to be picked up from the counter.

“SMS can be a primary mode of notification because it’s quick and easy,” says Anbalagan. “Everybody carries a device, and you don’t have to open your email or install the mobile app to know what your order status is. Between push notifications, email, and SMS, we see more adoption of SMS, with close to a third of our guests opting in for SMS communication in the Contactless Dine-in channel.”

Customer sentiment has shown frictionless curbside experience with two-way communication to be a much-loved differentiator for Panera, validating the company’s enthusiasm about SMS adoption.

“How can we manage communications in a way that transactions are initiated and fulfilled faster with the right number of messages, tailored to guest preferences?”

Raj Anbalagan SVP of Digital Technology and Innovation

Strategizing communications from a future-back viewpoint

Panera Bread continues to pursue additional tracks for SMS communication. They are exploring how it can be used for labor scheduling inside the cafe to tackle last-minute exceptions as well as for marketing campaigns, offering an alternative to email for guests who opt in and would rather receive texts.

Implementing SMS has paved the way to thinking of communication as a platform. “How can we manage communications in a way that transactions are initiated and fulfilled faster with the right number of messages, tailored to guest preferences?” says Anbalagan. In this vein, Panera Bread is venturing into what they call the “conversational commerce” space, investigating voice ordering in the drive-thru and with personal voice-based assistants to further enhance and differentiate their customer experience.

For Panera Bread, building future-back digital technology strengthens business agility and lays the foundation for continuous innovation and business growth. The company’s focus on enhancing the customer journey creates a more harmonized, human experience, and elevated digital interactions are carried over into the physical space, enhancing each customer’s interactions, no matter their preferred format.

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