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Trading tradition for technology

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Story By Maggie Glisan

KANSAS CITY, MO — Dining behaviors have changed significantly as the restaurant industry has found itself deeply and profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the very notion of a traditional dining experience has evolved entirely to include a wide range of options and technology-driven conveniences.

Like any other restaurant in the industry, bakery cafes have faced unprecedented challenges in the past few years, and the current trends for the category reflect these seismic shifts in consumer behavior as well as the current economic climate and labor markets.

Carry-out and delivery services became non-negotiable for bakery cafes after the pandemic’s onset, and yet the demand for convenient ordering and off-premise dining options has not gone by the wayside, even as restaurants have started to regain dine-in traffic that was lost.

“Consumers are facing pandemic fatigue and are enthusiastically returning to dining out,” said Varchasvi, analyst for US foodservice and menu insights at Mintel. “Their interest in and usage of takeout/delivery offerings remains virtually unchanged but is set to grow even further. As technological and operational advancements strengthen off-premise offerings across the industry, operators will need to compete on delivering the perfect at-home experience to consumers whose expectations for value, convenience, quality and easy access have been elevated over the pandemic.”

Many of the biggest chain brands have adopted new store concepts that lean into off-premise dining, utilize convenience-driven innovation, and leverage digital touch points to meet consumers where they are.

St. Louis-based Panera Bread recently rolled out several stores that reimage the traditional bakery cafe. In May 2021, the brand introduced a new restaurant design with a double drive-thru, where one lane is dedicated to the restaurant’s Rapid Pick-Up service. And in November, Panera debuted a modern urban store format in New York designed specifically for digital and off-premise customers. It features a footprint that’s 40% smaller than traditional Panera stores with limited counter seating, ordering kiosks, a digitized menu and digital order status tracking.

According to the company, transactions from digital channels including the app, kiosk and web and digital sales now make up 50% of total system sales. The next step in a digital-forward approach is the adoption of AI technology in its drive-thru lanes. The ordering technology called “Tori” was installed in select New York locations in August with the goal of maximizing efficiency and increasing order speeds.

Boston-based Au Bon Pain also unveiled a new design for its bakery cafes, tailored to customers looking to get in and out fast. Features include a self-serve bakery, ordering stations and to-go areas.

But not all bakery cafes are leaning in quite as hard to digital-first store designs. For Mike Ferretti, chairman and CEO of Great Harvest Bread Company, it will be a long time before kiosks replace front-of-house employees.

Although the company has no immediate plans for digital-first store remodels, Ferretti said Great Harvest has seen considerable benefits from the adoption of the Great Harvest Rewards app.

In fact, loyalty programs have become increasingly popular for bakery cafe customers — especially among younger generations — as digital platforms make it easier for people to earn and redeem rewards.

According to a report published by data intelligence firm Near, called “The New World of Consumer

Behavior: Restaurants 2022,” 50% of respondents said they are more likely to eat at restaurants where they’re part of the loyalty program, and that number increased to 60% for Gen Zers and millennials.

London-based Pret (formerly Pret A Manger) recently updated its app to better support Pret Pick Up and The Pret Coffee Subscription in addition to its Pret Perks program, which launched in late 2021. The move emphasizes customer interest in having one digital platform that makes it easier to order and earn rewards.

Bakery cafes are also finding innovative new ways to meet consumer demand for sustainable, environmentally friendly practices. A June 2022 IRI survey revealed 35% of Gen Z and millennial consumers have “tried more sustainable food or beverage brands previously never purchased,” and a Morning Consult survey found that more than two-thirds of Gen Z respondents said sustainability had at least some impact on their food and beverage choices.

In 2020, Panera made headlines when it introduced “Cool Food Meals,” menu items that carry a lower carbon footprint. The Panera team worked with non-profit World Resources Institute (WRI) and sustainable consulting firm Pure Strategies to identify dishes that fall below the WRI’s recommended impact threshold and now identifies those items as Cool Food Meal certified (more than 50% of Panera’s menu currently carries the certification).

Other bakery cafes are seriously committing to locally sourcing ingredients and using local suppliers for a host of other items and services. According to an August 2021 Innova Trends survey, when global consumers were asked how important community (food from local producers) is to their diet, three out of five said it was “very” or “extremely” important.

Ferretti said there is a fair amount of local sourcing done at Great Harvest, with many stores choosing to seek out local honey, eggs and butter.

“We’re committed to using the best quality ingredients and making sure our recipes are very clean label. It’s where we need to be and what our customers expect,” he said.

This story has been adapted from the March | Q1 2023 Craft to Crumb mini-mag. Read the full story in the digital edition.


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