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I tried Panera’s drive-thru, and it has a long way to go to compete with Chipotle

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

  • I visited a Panera drive-thru for the first time. 
  • Fast-casual chains like Chipotle and Panera have added drive-thrus in the last few years.
  • I liked Panera’s food, but the drive-thru execution wasn’t as convenient or efficient as competitors.

Drive-thrus have long dominated fast food, and now they’re taking over fast-casual restaurants like Panera and Chipotle, too.Panera drive thru

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Source: Insider, Insider

I’ve been to Panera, but not recently, and I’ve never visited one with a drive-thru. Panera first launched its drive-thru in 2010, but started increasing the option across its fleet in recent years.Panera drive thru

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I visited a location in Rochester, New York to try it out.Panera drive thru

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I pulled into a parking spot and tried to see what the drive-thru situation was. I was expecting to be able to order through the app, like at nearly every other chain, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that.Panera drive thru

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I double-checked that I had selected the right location with a drive-thru. I also tested out a few other locations to make sure there wasn’t some kind of glitch.Panera app

Panera

There are ways to order through Panera’s app, but oddly drive-thru wasn’t an option.Panera app

Panera

I thought maybe rapid pickup could be the answer, but the app clearly stated that the option was designated for picking up orders inside the store.Panera app

Panera

I pulled into the single drive-thru lane, realizing that was the only way to order.Panera drivethru

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I still consulted the menu on the app, because so much of the appeal of Panera is combining soups, salads, and sandwiches from a menu I don’t know as comprehensively as Taco Bell or McDonald’s.Panera drive thru

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

At the drive-thru, I ran into some of the issues I’d been anticipating. Because there are so many variations in sizes and combinations on the menu, ordering is somewhat difficult over the speaker, often causing a prolonged back-and-forth.Panera drive thru

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

The complications in orders seemed to slow down the line, both at the ordering speaker and the window where customers get their food.Panera drive thru

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I think Panera would be better if it took a cue from Taco Bell, where certain combinations are only available in mobile orders, or even Chipotle, where all drive-thru orders must be made digitally.Panera drive thru

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

My food finally came packed in a large brown bag.Panera

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

That bag was filled with several smaller bags.Panera to go

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

I ordered the “You Pick Two” combo, with half a Caesar salad and a mac and cheese sandwich.Panera caesar salad

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

The salad, which came with dressing on the side, was fine but nothing special.Panera caesar salad

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

It was probably something I could’ve put together at home, but I do love a good Caesar dressing.Panera caesar salad dressing

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

For the other part of my combo meal, I branched out from my usual chicken avocado melt to try a grilled macaroni and cheese sandwich.Panera mac and cheese sandwich

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

It was exactly what it sounds like: Panera’s iconic mac and cheese served on two warm slices of sourdough bread.Panera grilled cheese sandwich

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

While definitely not the healthiest item on the menu, I told myself I was balancing it out with the salad.Panera mac and cheese sandwich

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

This definitely isn’t an every day or even every week type of sandwich, but it feels like an indulgent treat that I could see getting again.Panera grilled cheese sandwich

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

My co-taste tester was my sister, who ordered the Asian Sesame Salad with chicken.Panera salad

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

She reported that it was delicious, and after seeing the wonton strips, almonds, and sesame seeds, I wished I’d chosen that salad instead.Panera salad

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

The sesame salad seemed much more substantial than the Caesar, though it also costs several dollars more at $11.79 for a full size, compared to $8.89 for a full-size Caesar.Panera salad

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Entrees at Panera also come with a side of potato chips, a baguette, or an apple. I went with the chips.Panera chips

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Finally we grabbed an extra side of mac and cheese, because it’s arguably the best thing on the menu.Panera mac and cheese

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

The meal totaled $30.63, and I know I’ll be back to Panera if only for the grilled mac and cheese sandwich.Panera salad

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

The price is comparable to Chipotle, but I think if Panera wants to compete with higher-priced brands and differentiate itself from fast food, it needs to implement convenience measures, like better mobile ordering.Panera mac and cheese sandwich

Mary Meisenzahl/Insider

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at [email protected]

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