Panera CIO John Meister on mastering customer experience

John Meister is the senior vice president and CIO of Panera Bread, a chain of bakery-cafe fast casual restaurants with more than 2,000 locations across the United States and Canada. Over the past decade at Panera, Meister has been instrumental in driving Panera’s customer digital experience initiatives and building an innovative IT culture that continues to stay ahead of fast changes in the marketplace. Under his leadership, Panera’s websites and apps have won numerous awards, including #1 Most Innovative Company in Food by Fast Company and Industry Best in Tech by Restaurant Business.

When we spoke for a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, Meister shared some of the secret sauce of his leadership, including how he navigates complexity and his passion for delivering on the experience promise, both externally for customers and internally for IT associates and team members. Afterwards, we spent some more time talking about his winning formula and what’s next for his team. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: IT leaders are always looking ahead to the next big thing. What’s next for you in setting Panera up for continued success? What are you and your team excited about looking ahead?

John Meister: For Panera, everything begins with the guest experience. Recently, we’ve done some great things in our rewards program around choosing your next reward. We’ve traditionally guessed at what it is you’re going to be ecstatic around — our ‘surprise and delight.’ But the reality is, we don’t always guess right — you may want to try something new. So, we’re adding options. Here’s a popular item if you’re in the mood to try something new, or here’s something that people like you typically choose, or you can do your regular order.

We’re also thinking a lot about personalization — creating all these micro-moments that can make ordering a little bit better. If we know, for example, that a guest always takes the onions off their order, then if they forget, we know to ask about it.

We’re also excited about digital drive-thrus and finding ways to improve the guest experience, whether it’s conversational AI ordering or picking up the digital order in the drive-thru. For years we contemplated doing a digital order pickup in the drive-thru, but thought, we can’t train the consumer to do it. Now, everyone’s gone there with COVID. So we return to those moments and think much more deeply about the interaction. We’re seeing very high customer satisfaction scores in those interactions. To summarize, I do think there is room to innovate in our main ordering wheelhouse. From an innovation standpoint, we’re still excited about conversational AI. We’re still excited about automation. Whether it’s accounting tasks, IT tasks, taking orders, or prepping food in the kitchen, there are a lot of exciting things on the automation horizon.

Roberts: There’s another complexity you have to contend with in your business, and that’s the fact that your industry experiences 100% turnover annually in the cafés. How are you addressing and impacting that?

We watch restaurant GM turnover and associate turnover closely, and our operations partners and HR partners have done such an amazing job over the last 12 to 18 months. It blows my mind how much they’ve improved Panera. Our attrition is among the best in the industry, and we’re rated the number one restaurant to work at by Black Box — that’s amazing. Still, you must think about quickly onboarding new team members. How do you segment people that are inspired by more hours? Or learning different roles? Or career growth? How do you think about inspiring team members, and how do you speak to them from that mindset? How do you teach a GM to treat the cafe associates like family? We look deeply at these aspects.

At the same time, we must make things easy — so easy that even I can go into a cafe and make sandwiches for an hour without a lot of training ahead of time. That’s hard to do because I’m not very good at making sandwiches. We constantly think about onboarding and our ease of use as intensely as we think about the guest experience.

Roberts: I joke that data is a four-letter word in many companies. How are you thinking about data and using it to address the logistics of the business?

Step one is hiring people smarter than you in any given subject. We have people much smarter than me when it comes to restaurant data. The first part of leveraging data is really understanding what we want to do with it — what is the KPI or the business metric we want to change? Maybe it’s attrition. Maybe it’s store profits. Maybe it’s location analysis for choosing new real estate locations. Then we look at the business situation and come up with a hypothesis around x. Now let’s get the data behind the hypothesis and see if the hypothesis makes a difference. Then, as you approach those learning moments, turn it into a dashboard, so it’s something that can live and breathe across the enterprise. If we look at store profitability, is it labor? Is it food cost? Is it overhead? Is it paper goods? Let’s put all the usual suspects onto a page so that the GM can understand it very quickly. If something starts to veer off our normal, the GM should be able to find it quickly and easily.

So, you go from thinking about a hypothesis, proving it, creating a dashboard, and then the next thing you know, you’ve got a million pieces of data screaming for attention, and you’re overwhelmed. Then you decide to make the data proactive. If something veers off course, send a proactive alert. Make the data much more interactive: It looks like there’s something going on with x, do we need to pay attention to it — yes or no? Even if it’s a no, let’s take that back and learn from it. Was there something else that we can look at over the long haul? Or, we have ten no’s and we don’t understand why. Let’s call some restaurant GMs to educate us. In the end, we come away smarter, and we discover new things we can do with our tools, and our end goal is to always make life better for the GMs.

Roberts:  We talked a lot about the culture you’re building and how you help your folks think about their value and show up differently. For example, you have your people out in the cafés and connecting with that broader purpose. Can you talk a bit more about that and how that impacts customers and associates?

I loved working at MasterCard — top of the technology game, amazing talent — but it was very hard to see what you did every day translate to the real world. Here, it’s just the opposite. I can finish coding something and test it today, put it in the cafe for a prototype or proof of concept, and then go into the cafe and watch our associates or customers use it. If I coded something to help us make sandwiches better, I can go make sandwiches myself or watch others make sandwiches. You get to experience it and live it.

Every new support center associate must go work in the bakery-cafe for a few days — it’s part of our onboarding process. That’s phenomenal, because you come away with ideas to improve our business with technology to make life easier for our employees and our customers. In the moment of working in the cafe, you might dread it because you are nervous, but then you get immersed and love it. You’re going to spend the next five years wishing you could do it again. And then when you finally get that opportunity, you’re so happy to have all these new insights. You want to do something that makes a difference. We really try and walk the walk.

Roberts: As leaders we are always being watched. People read how we handle ourselves in situations, especially the more challenging ones. How do you think about that in terms of how you show up and take ownership in the hard times?

I always say, mood is contagious. You must not take yourself seriously. Laugh at yourself a little bit. At the same time, think about the big picture, understand how your role resulted in this situation and remind people how we got here. It’s so easy to beat yourself up when things aren’t going well. Remind yourself of the big picture, why I’m here, what’s the difference I’m trying to make.

And look for ways to refresh and inspire others. There’s times I have to remind everyone, we’re here selling soups and salads and sandwiches, and we’re making a difference in people’s lives. Go out and look at some of those customer stories about how we helped the mom or dad who had cancer or made this other person’s dream come true. Those stories melt your heart and remind you why you’re here. But always try and have as much fun as you can. Because mood is contagious.

Roberts: Speaking of showing up, could I get you to share the ‘toasted bagel’ story, which speaks to the commitment your leadership team has to continuous improvement? I also see it as the story of a CIO who is seen as a business leader first.

This was in around 2014 or so. Every morning, the CEO would use our new mobile app to order breakfast and get it on the way to drop his son off at school. He’d stop at the light and send his son in to pick up the order. If his son could come back with the order before the light turned green, I had a good day. If he had to pull into the parking lot, I had long morning.

The CEO always ordered the same thing: a Green Passion smoothie and a toasted plain white bagel. It’s an order that we can’t leave on the shelf for too long, so there was no way for me to beg the GM to make my life easier. I would go about a week without hearing from the CEO and think, we’ve finally got this experience down. It’s 25 seconds from the time you get out of the car to get your food and get back in the car. I would time myself over and over. But it had to be that way every time. The CEO would change cafes and sure enough, I’d hear something again. Eventually, I went about three weeks without hearing from him and I thought, maybe this is it.

Then I started to get these text messages: ‘This is the toasted bagel I got this morning at this location. Then I went to a different location, and this is the toasted bagel there, and I went to a third location, and this is the toasted bagel there.’ In the pictures, one bagel was dark, one was light, and one was barely toasted. One had toast marks on it, one didn’t. The inconsistency was terrible.

That’s when I knew I’d arrived as a business leader, because I’d owned this experience so much that now he wanted me to fix our toasting. I laughed, because I thought, I can go out and buy $100,000 AI-enabled toasters with cameras in them, but that’s not what the CEO is going to want. I went to Boston for my standing Friday meeting with him, and he had a poster with bagels from about 30 cafes, organized from light to dark. What are we going to do?

I went back to the Operations Services team, who are much smarter than I am, and asked for help. They suggested looking at the factory settings on these toasters. Let’s get a color guide out to the cafes. If a toasted bagel matches this color, turn it down a notch, if it matches that color, let’s turn it up two notches, etc. We needed to go out and adjust the toasters and get back to the basics on the equipment. That’s when I knew the technology was no longer our challenge — and that our little Rapid Pick-Up® channel had arrived.

For more from Meister’s leadership playbook, tune into the Tech Whisperers podcast.

IT Leadership, IT Strategy