The obvious answer as a consumer:
Panera has the most consistent and delicious paninis ever (especially the Roasted Turkey Artichoke Panini which has been promoted from Panera’s Signature Hot Panini section of the menu to Premium Signature Hot Panini)
Find a recipe of it here (Dashing Dish offers healthy versions of recipes for popular dishes)
The not so obvious factors:
The whole idea of café bakery does not seem novel but upon closer inspection you may realize that Panera has really been a trendsetter in this category. From a psychological standpoint, I want to focus on the experience and social norm induced psychological barriers that prevent people from even stepping foot in a restaurant in the first place. Panera removes these barriers significantly and that’s why I have found myself drifting into Panera on a day when I have no idea where to get lunch.
Barrier 1 broken:
Eating outside of the home is usually a social event. In many cultures including the US, eating alone is perceived as an anxiety inducing action outside of the home. Eating alone signals that someone is Alone (with a capital A). The casual nature of Panera, bar seating and small tables break this barrier allowing “single eaters” to enjoy their meal in-store without the fear of being judged.
It is interesting to note that even though many Chinese restaurants are at the same price point as Panera, the mere fact that chinese restaurants are not “self service” drives “single eaters” away who just want something classy but easy. Chinese restaurants also differ from Panera for another reason.
My theory on why eating alone is ok in this situation is that fast food and hybrids like Panera veer away from the norms of the traditional family dining table. Chinese restaurants have table layouts that evokes strong communal ties. The further away a concept is from a traditional dining table, the more accessible for “single eaters”.
This sounds intuitive, but many restaurants especially casual dining joints do not realize this perception and brand themselves as “family” brands. It seems like a safe bet to include “everyone” through the family, but the family is NOT “everyone”. Branding decisions to go the family route and evoke images of warm family dishes may be a problem for chains that are in cities with huge “single eater” populations.
Barrier 2 broken:
The fast food-like setup where service personnel and customers are physically separated by a counter triggers fast food paying norms rather than your traditional restaurant tipping norms. Even though Panera is not considered a fast food chain, people feel no obligation to tip since you don’t tip at place like McDonald’s. Service is more impersonal in some sense, and this is refreshing for people who are overworked and tired of interactions with waiters while allowing them to save a few bucks for an in-store dining experience.
Barrier 3 broken:
Anti-premium and affordable
Panera’s positioning is far from taking a premium approach. It is accessible in its image removing any sort of intimidation barriers that may come with premium restaurant brands. In other words, Panera’s sandwiches are relatively cheap but the word “cheap” is often not associated with the brand.
Barrier 4 broken:
McDonald’s is cheap. Panera is anti-premium but at the same time, anti-cheap. Cheap can be broken down into two: cheap quality or low price. Panera positions itself as good quality but at an affordable price. To some extent, the healthiness of Panera’s products is also lumped into this anti-cheap image.