How Panera Bread pivoted to offer groceries in the midst of the pandemic

Megan Danielson / June 2020 / Search, Food and Drink

Restaurants have been one of the hardest hit industries in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. I talk to restaurant brands every day, and in the past few months, many of our restaurant partners have told me how challenging this adjustment has been. It’s tough for customers too. As some countries began to lift restrictions in April, consumers were eager to return to restaurants. Searches for “when will restaurants reopen” grew globally by 80% from the week of April 11 to April 18.1

Of course, with limited dine-in options, demand for groceries has risen. Searches for “best grocery delivery” have grown globally by over 700% in the past year.2 Still, some consumers are struggling to supply their kitchens because of stores’ low availability of certain pantry items and scarce grocery delivery slots, according to news reports. The team at Panera Bread, the 30-year-old casual dining brand, harnessed this insight and similar consumer findings to identify ways to quickly pivot its business and provide new offerings to customers. Through the launch of Panera Grocery, customers can get quick and safe access to healthy and clean grocery essentials via curbside pickup, drive-thru, and contactless delivery with over 10,000 delivery associates nationwide.

I recently talked with Panera Bread Chief Marketing Officer Chris Hollander and Chief Digital Officer George Hanson to learn how they pulled off this initiative during the pandemic, and how it will shape the brand’s future.

Chris Hollander, CMO, Panera Bread; George Hanson, Chief Digital Officer, Panera Bread

Megan Danielson, head of industry, food beverage, and restaurants at Google: You’ve embarked on an innovative shift toward offering grocery essentials to your customers with the launch of Panera Grocery. How would you describe this new offering, and how is it meeting the needs of your customers at this unique moment in time?

Chris Hollander, CMO at Panera Bread: We saw that our customers were facing the challenge of accessing delivery windows from traditional grocery retailers due to unprecedented demand. And they were struggling to find essential items, including bread, milk, and fresh produce. We knew Panera could play a role in opening up access and serving our customers with high-quality grocery items and ingredients that come fresh and direct from our pantry.

We’ve been able to swiftly double down on our reliable delivery and curbside pickup capabilities to ensure customer comfort and safety.

We saw the availability we had in our supply chain and how it lined up with the needs … we were seeing in the marketplace.

How were you able to rally your entire organization to launch this effort?

Hollander: Everything began with an impulse to help our customers and our communities during these challenging times. Beyond impulse was visibility into Google insights, which identified a massive consumer need and demand for safe and accessible essential food and grocery staples. For instance, at the time, search interest around topics like “food supply for pandemic” had risen 1,000% over the previous month.3 We saw the availability we had in our supply chain and how it lined up with the needs we were hearing about from customers and the data we were seeing in the marketplace.

It started with the grocery list, then digital and tech, then a marketing plan, and then operations training. From there, our teams came together and rallied around the idea and the best interest of our guests. Once the clarity of purpose and intent was established, this concept took off and was well received among our team.

What was tech’s role in pivoting so quickly?

George Hanson, chief digital officer at Panera Bread: Leveraging core digital properties like our app and loyalty program were huge benefits and factors in enabling this launch. We are lucky to have a 38-million-member focus group through our My Panera membership base, where we initially tested this new concept. The response from our members, through both direct feedback and orders, indicated early on their appreciation for the Panera Grocery offering.

We also turned to digital for ways to make the customer experience more seamless, convenient, and safe. Solutions like Google Pay helped provide a contactless payment option for in-store pickup orders and as a way to offer a fast, simple, and more secure way to pay online and in app.

How do you approach your current marketing and communications strategy, and how has COVID-19 specifically impacted your media mix?

Hanson: Our strategy was to get the word out about Panera Grocery while maintaining the message around our traditional cafe offerings. Our media mix has shifted to digital partners that can provide nimble, efficient, and targeted media solutions during this time. A mix of Local campaigns, Search, and YouTube provides us with opportunities to reach people efficiently and quickly — two critical marketing components in this moment.

For instance, we’ve leveraged Local campaigns to reach local customers at scale, targeting our bakery-cafes where we’re offering safe groceries and customizing our ads to keep our creative up to date with our latest offerings. We’ve also been promoting Panera Grocery on Google Ads, taking advantage of being nimble with our messaging that wouldn’t have the same reach organically.

And, from a reach perspective, YouTube provided significant scale for our grocery video message while getting in front of the exact audience we are trying to reach: a mix of grocery shoppers and potential Panera customers.

How do you evaluate and measure success through this new lens?

Hollander: While there’s no road map for the crisis we’re experiencing, we are measuring success in three primary ways. First, we stick to the values we set early as the pandemic was escalating: Protect our customers and employees; and protect our brand. Plus we’re looking at our sales so that we keep as many bakery-cafes open and as many associates working as possible. Lastly, we’re sourcing customer feedback so that we better understand their thoughts on our services and our overall response to these challenging times.

Lastly, how do you see digital continuing to drive this new launch and future activations?

Hanson: It’s important to us to continue personalizing our menu and recommendations across our web, app, and loyalty marketing capabilities, which we believe will drive improved relevance, conversion, and overall growth in adoption of Panera Grocery. And we see strategic partnerships, like teaming up with Google, as helpful ways to do just that.

Rising retail categories: What people are searching on Google right now