Michael Kazarian – Panera Bread
- Written by: Neil Cote
- Produced by: Andrew Wright & Cherie Scott
- Estimated reading time: 4 mins
It’s a design that hasn’t gone stale, it’s just in need of some refreshment.
So explains Michael Kazarian as he oversees renovations at around 75 Panera Bread locales this year. Much has changed since the popular chain of bakery-cafes debuted in 1987, with the past few years perhaps the most consequential for Panera as well as fast casual dining establishments in general.
Panera’s drive-thru and online orders were increasing even before COVID-19 and, post-pandemic, aren’t waning. In fact, says Kazarian, off-premises dining continues to rise, so there is not as much need for floor tables and chairs.
The half-walls and dividers that used to create semi-private space have come down, and even the fireplace has been revamped with outlets for recharging phones.
In another noticeable tweak, the bakery case has been moved to the front of the service counter while overhead an angled 6-foot-long mirror allows everyone a look at what just came out of the oven. The bread, muffins, bagels and pastries are, after all, some of the main attractions. Then there’s updated signage and new artwork and furniture for a more modern feel.
“We’re just going with a more clean, bright and contemporary design than in the past,” Kazarian tells Blueprint in December. “And that bird’s eye view of the bakery, it has a strong impact and will be added to every remodel.”
Lengthy to-do list
He seems to have the process down to a science, which has taken some doing, Kazarian only being part of Panera since September 2021. But for the previous 15 years he had held similar roles at McDonald’s and says the skills are transferable.
“Awesome” is how he describes his first calendar year, with 75 remodels completed on his watch and each one under or around budget. Even the supply-chain issues didn’t set back much progress—Kazarian having identified general contractors with adequate staffing and access to materials.
“If we had a shipment of lights delayed, we could still move forward,” he says. “If we had to go back and install a light fixture or hang up art, we would. Our emphasis was on hitting our target dates because if you don’t, it blocks up everything.”
The first tools weren’t unsheathed until July but by year-end, the 75 upgrades had been completed, many of them clustered in certain areas—at least 15 in and around Panera’s St. Louis headquarters. The new year’s agenda calls for a similar load and Kazarian again spending around 30 percent of his time on the road, although not micromanaging.
“Part of our success is having the right partnerships with our general contractors,” he says. “It’s always best when you have one who can work in multiple states and hire the local subcons. All we need are great partners.”
This time, more dough
He reckons 2023’s targets will be hit, albeit at potentially higher cost to labor and supplies. Kazarian sees the upgrades as necessary investments for Panera Bread to create a bakery cafe environment that serves guests and associates well.
McDonald’s had him doing similar work, especially during his last few years as a national construction manager with a pandemic underway. Then, Panera dangled the possibility of a midcareer change that allowed Kazarian to remain in the Michigan home where he and his wife have raised three children.
“Initially I wondered if I had made the right decision,” he recalls. “I had been in a comfortable role for over 15 years and here I was coming to a new company with its new idea and mindset. But now I have no doubt it was the right choice.”
Kazarian also has no doubt he made the right career choice decades ago. Even as a boy he enjoyed building things and went on to study architecture and design at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. The Detroit-based Little Caesars pizza chain proved an early fit, it affording the young Kazarian a comprehensive look at assembling a franchise outlet.
An early start
“Although architects usually work in the office, Little Caesars had me visiting sites. It didn’t take long to learn that’s where the rubber meets the road,” he recalls. “I fell in love with being out in the field and solving problems on site and not just on paper.”
Kazarian got to do even more at McDonald’s from 2006 to 2021, with much emphasis during those last couple years on retrofitting restaurants with double drive-thru’s, better technology and other amenities.
Panera’s also enhanced its digital methods with technology, as well as kiosk integration, its MyPanera loyalty program and an overall commitment to digital personalization. Change is inevitable, with prototypes having limited shelf lives, Kazarian reminds
He says initial feedback to the renovations has been positive. The agreeable aroma of fresh bread still greets patrons, and there remain the baked goods, salads, sandwiches, soups, specialty beverages and the latest additions of flatbread pizzas, Chef’s Chicken sandwiches and recently, new Toasted Baguettes.
All are delivered more quickly than before through digital menu boards and with savings through smaller floor plans and sustainable features.
“We have the right managers in place to complete the work ahead,” he says. “If I’m on the road now, it’s to build the right relationships with our vendors and clear the way for my team.”
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. II 2023 Edition here.
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