Panera Bread Rising

Panera Bread Rising“Most of the world seems to be focused on the Americans who are unemployed. We’re focused on the 90% that are still employed.”

Those are the words of Ron Shaich, CEO of Panera Bread, the 1,300-unit bakery-cafe that has found a way to thrive in spite of the recession. Its formula? A combination of smart financial management and keen understanding of its core customers, most of whom remain gainfully employed (and ever-more attuned to good value).

Rather than cutting corners, Panera has focused on offering more to its broad range of middle income customers, including free wi-fi access and frequent new menu offerings. According to Shaich:

“In many ways, we’re renting space to people and the food is the price of admission,”

Panera COO Rick Vanzura agrees, saying, “A bunch of folks have been cutting quality to cut price to go after the marginal customer. We said a better strategy that addresses a bigger group of people is providing better value.”

The strategy is working. In 2008 (a very bad year for most fast-casual restaurants), Panera Bread grew by double digits. In 2009 – the worst economic year in generations – the company managed to keep same store sales from declining, and in the third quarter actually increased them by 3 percent. Food industry analyst Darren Tristano pinpoints why:

“Panera’s on-trend with what consumers are asking for: fresh, customizable, convenient, won’t break the bank.”

Panera Bread has been able maintain its focus because of careful cash management. Rather than using debt to expand, assuming the good times of years past would keep on rolling, the company grew slowly and deliberately over the past decade. That kept it healthy from a cash flow perspective and prevented it from having to cut corners or cut margins (or both) when times got tough. As Shaich says:

“Every chain is cutting something – portion size, quality, hours of labor. The result is that ultimately the customer feels it.”

Most players in the restaurant industry – in most industries, for that matter – think the current game is all about price. Panera Bread is an all-too-rare exception, demonstrating that companies that keep their focus, nerve, consensus and consistency can thrive even in bad times. I’m a fan.

Steve McKeeSteve McKee is a columnist, marketing consultant, and author of “When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What To Do About It.” Learn more about him at and at

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