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If You Like Bread Bowls and Tech, You'll Love the New Panera

Among the new advancements: Ordering by smartphone while sitting in the restaurant.

Panera Bread
Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

When I think of restaurant chain Panera, I think bread bowls, sandwiches and feeling disgustingly full (my fault, not theirs). I don’t think about technology.

But that may change! The fast casual restaurant chain, which has more than 1,800 locations nationwide, is making drastic changes to its in-restaurant experience, featuring technology enhancements to cut down on wait times and errors on orders, it announced today.

Among the updates in what the company is calling Panera 2.0: Being able to order and pay through your phone while sitting at a table; ordering from a kiosk when the regular lines are long; and ordering in advance, by as much as five days, and picking up at a specific time from a shelf designed to hold pick-up orders.

Some of these changes have rolled out to a handful of locations, but the full transformation will have hit somewhere between 750 and 1000 locations by the end of 2015, according to Blaine Hurst, Panera’s tech boss.

Gone also will be the three-quarter walls from which diners currently pick up their food; Panera employees will deliver all orders to the dining tables.

In an interview, I expressed some skepticism that there would actually be demand among Panera’s clientele for ordering through the chain’s app while sitting at a table. But Hurst explained that in Panera’s busier locations, finding a table can often be an issue during peak hours — something I’ve recently observed myself.

“It’s not for every customer,” he said. But, he added, “a lot of consumers do go find a table, drop their books or computers, or sit down and hopefully someone who’s with them can go get in line.”

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