How Panera Bread builds its team culture – virtually
Panera Bread CEO Niren Chaudhary oversees his team leaders whom he has never even met in person.
That’s understandable, given that Chaudhary took over the brand in May 2019, roughly eight months before a global pandemic rocked the restaurant industry and the world.
Of the 10 executives who are his direct reports, eight are new recruits in the chain, brought in by Chaudhary in recent months as part of a major transformation for fast casual. In addition, each member of the management team owns a Panera.
“It’s a pretty unique model,” Chaudhary said. “Every member of the management team had to make an investment and become an owner.”
Chaudhary began filling this leadership team in early 2020, just before the pandemic hit the United States. The new brand and concept manager of the chain, Eduardo Luz, arrived at Panera after years at Kraft Heinz.
“I interviewed them on Zoom,” he said. “We’ve been working together for four to six months, and I haven’t even met some of them.
But, while having virtual meetings, Chaudhary said he was able to create a sense of culture for the team. Work, he said, is a multi-step process: building trust in order to create “productive conflict,” he said, which then leads to “engagement” and “clarity”.
Panera has partnered with an outside agency specializing in “cultural interventions” to work on a process to nurture trust, conflict, commitment and accountability among chain leaders, he said.
“As we move forward, we will have a clear roadmap on how to build this culture,” he said. “It’s led by a leader, grounded in rituals and built into all of our people processes. “
As for these rituals, Chaudhary inherited a couple who are at the heart of Panera culture.
Every big company meeting begins with a “homage to bread,” he said, in which Panera employees literally break bread together and people tell stories about what bread means to them. “It’s a fantastic ritual,” he says.
Another important part of Panera culture is the “bread bowl,” a peer-to-peer award that celebrates collaboration.
In this virtual age, Chaudhary sent a prize to the homes of various recipients, who were told not to open the package until a named Zoom call.
“They bring this package and we ask them to open it,” he said. “We recognize people who do exceptional work. It is entirely possible if you agree to it.
In addition to almost completely overhauling its leadership team, Panera rolled out a number of new initiatives during the pandemic.
Most notable is the chain’s coffee subscription program, the centerpiece of Panera’s goal of becoming “the Netflix of coffee,” Chaudhary said.
The program, launched at the end of February, now has more than half a million subscribers. This helps to build loyalty and increase the frequency of visits, as well as strengthen the attachment to food, he said.
This week, Panera launched a promotion in which new and old coffee subscribers get three months free.
“It’s a disruptive revenue model,” he said. “We’re off to a good start. “
Panera also recently launched a new menu platform, Flat Bread, which has become one of the chain’s most successful deployments, he said.
Like most chains during the pandemic, Panera is also thinking about what its restaurants will look like in the future. Chaudhary doesn’t expect the brand’s dining rooms to go away, as some brands are thinking about it, but restaurants will likely look different in the future. He expects a new prototype to be deployed in the third quarter of 2021.
“We are thinking about what the next generation will look like,” he said. “We believe that on site and in the restaurant is a very important part of our proposal. The box can get smaller and the offsite area can get bigger. We are working on all of these dimensions. It is in progress. “
He called 2020 the year in which there is “honestly no game manual”.
“He’s had his moments,” Chaudhary said. “We feel that we have become stronger thanks to the various pivot points that we have had to do. “