How Panera Sped Up Ordering And Dispersed Its ‘Mosh Pit’

It’s not a good sign when you’re a fast-casual restaurant, and your company’s own chairman wonders whether he should just have just stayed home and had leftovers for lunch instead of driving there. Panera Bread Co.’s Ron Shaich realized that other people would ask themselves the same question, and made changes to the ordering process that are finally paying off.

The Wall Street Journal recounts the dark days of 2010, when Panera customers found themselves waiting in a “mosh pit” in front of the registers for up to eight minutes, then waiting at their tables for food. About 10% of orders were wrong, even after all of that waiting.

While it was good that the restaurants had big crowds, it wasn’t so good that they took so long to serve them the wrong food.

The company began a seven-year project to reform all phases of ordering, making, and serving meals, and it’s finally paying off in the form of shorter wait times.

A large number of customers now submit their orders online, from an app, or from in-store tablets, and eventually the error rate went down.

Yet the company’s experience should also serve as a warning to companies like Starbucks and McDonald’s that are rolling out similar reforms of their ordering process. Starbucks is dealing with mosh pits of its own after its mobile ordering app began to catch on, with huge crowds waiting for beverages while walk-in customers walked right back out.

Panera tested its new system in one of its restaurants near Boston, and found that changing one element of how orders were processed would lead to unforeseen consequences.

For example, letting customers order their food online helped ease the line at the front counter, but increased demand on the kitchen.

Customers punching their own orders in on tablets customized their orders more than customers ordering from a cashier, since the tablet shows them more options and substitutions. This meant more errors in the kitchen.

Eventually, the company fixed these errors and rolled them out chain-wide. Customers are pleased.

“It saves me from standing in line and taking half my lunch hour to get the food,” one customer on a lunch break told the WSJ.