For any bakery looking to remodel their store or revamp their menu to meet today’s strongest demand, the bakery cafe sector is the first place to start. Adding beverages, sandwiches, salads and soups continues to be one of the best ways to grow your business.

Bakery cafes continued to lead all menu categories among the Top 150 fast-casual chains, with US systemwide sales of $6.7 billion, up more than 9 percent over 2012. Technomic's Top 150 Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant Report reveals that the fast-casual segment continues to steal share from full-service chains and drive limited-service growth, making up 15 percent of the $231 billion limited-service restaurant segment. Fast-casual sales increased 11 percent in 2013, while all limited-service chains grew by only 3.5 percent.

"It's no secret that today's consumer wants quality offerings made quickly," says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic. "Fast casual has made an impact on the full- and limited-service restaurant landscape. Before, a consumer might have traded a quality and fresh meal for something quick and economical. Fast casual continues to find new ways to offer both, and it's become a $34.5 billion segment."

Panera sets the pace

During its latest fiscal quarter in 2014, Panera Bread opened 16 new bakery-cafes and its franchisees opened 11 new bakery-cafes. As a result, there were 1,800 bakery-cafes open system-wide as of April 1.

Panera is maintaining its previous target of 115 to 125 system-wide new bakery cafe openings in fiscal 2014 and its average weekly net sales performance target for new company-owned bakery cafes of $41,000 to $43,000 for fiscal 2014.

Ron Shaich, Panera’s chairman and CEO, commented that, historically, every five to ten years, Panera has re-staged its business to drive future growth. “Each time, these efforts have yielded material and sustained earnings growth. We are intent on doing that yet again,” he says.

In April, the company unveiled Panera 2.0 – a series of integrated technologies to enhance the guest experience for all consumers no matter how they choose to use Panera. Panera 2.0 brings together new capabilities for digital ordering, payment, operations and, ultimately, consumption to create an enhanced guest experience for “to go” and “eat in” customers.

“Panera 2.0 is an investment in the customer enabled by technology and powered by operational excellence,” Shaich says. “It’s more than a mobile-payment system or simply a digital-ordering process. It’s an integrated, comprehensive, end-to-end solution that we believe will reduce friction such as wait times, improve order accuracy, and minimize or eliminate crowding – all while creating a platform for an ever more personalized experience.”

Panera 2.0 elements include:

Advanced Ordering for To-Go: An ordering option called Rapid Pick-Up enables customers to place an online/mobile order from their office, car, work or home – up to five days in advance – and pick up their food at a pre-determined time without waiting in line.

Order from Your Table for Dine-In: An in-cafe dining enhancement that allows customers to place an online/mobile order from anywhere within the bakery-cafe and have the meal delivered directly to their table.

Fast Lane Kiosks for Dine-In and To-Go Orders: A new way to order in-cafe from iPad® kiosks. Kiosks are available in addition to cashier stations so that wait time is reduced for all guests. The kiosk is highly visual and includes a product builder to assist with order accuracy and customization.

Customized Ordering: At the kiosks, and through the web or mobile app, guests can save customizations, past orders, and “favorites” for easy ordering on their next visit. And, when linked to the MyPanera Loyalty program and a credit card, it creates a frictionless and faster experience for users.

“Panera 2.0 is an integrated experience that meets the differentiated needs of ‘to go’ and ‘eat in’ customers, so they don’t bump into each other,” says Blaine Hurst, Panera’s executive vice president of technology & transformation. “Panera 2.0 provides new mechanisms for ordering, payment, food production, and, ultimately, consumption. We took a totally integrated approach, and believe what we are providing is a truly enhanced guest experience.”

The fast-casual landscape

Beyond bakery cafes, the Mexican and sandwich categories rank as second and third largest in Technomic’s fast-casual rankings, with US systemwide sales of $6.4 and $4.9 billion, respectively.

The specialty menu category saw the fastest sales growth, up 16 percent followed by chicken, which was up 12 percent. The sandwich and specialty clusters experienced the highest unit growth, growing outlets by 13 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

Top fast-casual clusters and their leaders include the following:

•Bakery cafe led by Panera Bread with estimated sales of $4.1 billion.
•Mexican led by Chipotle Mexican Grill with estimated sales of $3.2 billion.
•Sandwich led by Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwich Shop with sales of $1.5 billion.
•Chicken led by Zaxby's with sales of $1.1 billion.
•Asian/Noodle led by Panda Express with sales of $2 billion.
•Burger led by Five Guys Burgers and Fries with sales of $1.1 billion.
•Pizza led by Donatos Pizza with estimated sales of $174 million.
•Specialty led by Dickey's Barbecue Pit with estimated sales of $331 million.