In recent years, fast food and fast casual restaurants have built up their breakfast offerings. Now, with healthier menu items, better coffee and tech designed to maximize speed, Panera thinks it's in a good position to compete.
Earlier this month, Panera started serving breakfast wraps: an indulgent maple bacon egg and cheese, a healthier chicken, egg and avocado, and vegetarian egg white, spinach and feta. It also started serving cold brew coffee. And since January, it's been upgrading its hot coffee stations with new equipment to improve quality, a process that should be completed by mid summer.
With better breakfast options, Panera can be "more relevant to more customers," Dan Wegiel, Panera's chief growth and strategy officer, told CNN Business. If Panera can get people to come in (or order out) throughout the day, "volume, and the growth, and all that follows.
The fast-casual chain makes most of its sales in the afternoon and evening. But over the last few years it's started chasing the breakfast crowd with more options and morning deliveries. For Panera, the increased focus on breakfast is also a nod to the fact that at lunch, some of their stores may be maxed out. "In many cafes, we're also recognizing that we're hitting capacity, physical capacity, in our ability to drive that volume," Wegiel noted.
But it's not the only restaurant trying to get more customers at breakfast — a meal restaurants have started paying closer attention to in recent years.
McDonald's added a new breakfast sandwich to its menu for the first times in five years in the fall. "It's very competitive out there at breakfast," said CEO Stephen Easterbrook at the time. "We're still losing a little share ... it continues to be a battleground."
Taco Bell started serving breakfast in 2014 and Dunkin has also done well in the morning. Both McDonald's and Dunkin' have also invested in improving their coffee.
"We know we will be competing with them," Wegiel said of McDonalds, Dunkin', Starbucks and the chain's local competitors. But he sees those restaurants as leading with coffee or attracting customers with low prices. Panera, instead, wants to be seen as a high quality option.
"Our focus on breakfast isn't just about a single item or category — it's about looking at the market and bridging a gap for guests," said Panera CEO Blaine Hurst in a statement Monday. "People are compromising between convenience and quality in the morning,and we know that's a problem Panera can help solve."
Panera is also making it easy to re-order meals through its digital platforms.
"At breakfast, speed is a critical factor," said Weigel. A rapid reorder function in Panera's app can help speed up the ordering process. The chain is also testing out a new tap and go feature in North Carolina that allows customers to pay for self-serve coffee by tapping a smart poster with their phones.