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Panera won't pump the brakes on delivery, curbside even when pandemic eases

Panera won't pump the brakes on delivery, curbside even when pandemic eases

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Panera

Panera Bread, which operates locally as St. Louis Bread Co., is headquartered in Sunset Hills. Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris.

SUNSET HILLS — Few restaurant-goers these days want to sit down and linger over coffee and muffins, preferring instead to take their meals to go — often without setting foot inside.

The Sunset Hills-based Panera chain of bakery-cafes, which operates locally as St. Louis Bread Co., is doing a whopping 85% of its business through “off-premise” sales, which include delivery, pickup, drive-thru and catering.

It’s no surprise such methods are its No. 1 priority amid the coronavirus pandemic that has kept people from restaurant dining rooms.

But that focus isn’t going to lift once the virus eases its grip, said Chris Correnti, Panera’s senior vice president of off-premise channels.

“The pandemic sped up a process that already was happening,” he said.

Restaurants of all types, struggling to stay afloat, are looking to beef up such sales. The National Restaurant Association reported in September that 71% of operators it surveyed said off-premise sales represented a higher proportion of their total business than before the COVID-19 outbreak. It also found that 67% had added curbside takeout since March.

“While this doesn’t come close to making up for lost on-premises sales for most restaurants, it provides a potential opportunity to help stay afloat until the coronavirus clouds part,” the group said.

Panera, which operates more than 2,000 bakery-cafes with 850 drive-thrus, was beginning to focus on getting food to people outside its walls before the coroanvirus, and it has since tailored menu options to fit new routines of people eating lunches at home instead of at work, and dinners at different times.

”It has been a massive shift,” Correnti said. “We were in a good position to adapt and adjust to how the customer wanted to be served.”

That shift included offering delivery not only through Panera’s app and website, but through other services such as DoorDash, Postmates, Grubhub and Uber Eats. And it launched curbside pickup a few weeks into the pandemic.

Panera has rethought its catering offerings, too:

It once fed board rooms full of employees with boxes of bagels and pastries. Now it’s testing an idea it’s calling virtual catering. Employers buy vouchers and digitally distribute them to employees to use on the day of the meeting at any Panera restaurant they choose. The employer is billed only for the vouchers used.

”It’s a way to bring some normalcy to it,” he said. The option began this month.

Panera has made several changes to its menu in the past year beyond focusing on off-premise sales.

{div class=”lee-article-text”}In February, it began its $8.99-a-month unlimited coffee subscription. Eight months later, Panera said it became the first national restaurant company to label climate-friendly “cool food meals” on its menu, which it described as meals that have a low impact on the climate. More than half of Panera entrees are such meals. In October, it added flatbread pizzas to its menu, an offering beyond the soups, salads and sandwiches it’s known for, in an effort to grow its dinner business.

And new this month: two more pizza flavors, pepperoni and four cheese.

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