September 22, 2022

Panera Bread steps up diversity and inclusion efforts

The fast-casual concept strives to “unlock the dreams” of its diverse workforce
Panera employee

Panera requires company associates to complete cultural intelligence training, with the goal of improving interactions among associates and with guests.

Fast-casual giant Panera Bread aspires to serve up not just soups, salads, and sandwiches—but also dreams. As the country faced a racial reckoning in summer 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, Panera examined its own culture and launched a three-year strategic plan to improve its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. The plan is guided by a vision that at Panera, with over 2,100 locations in 48 states and Canada, “All are welcomed, know they belong, and can dare to dream.” 

To help make those dreams a reality, Panera sought out team member input through a series of virtual-listening sessions. Associates were very clear that they wanted more diverse leadership and a more inclusive culture. To help guide its DEI work, Panera created a dedicated leadership position, appointing Pamela Morris-Thornton as vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. 

While Morris-Thornton leads Panera Bread’s DEI initiatives, she credits their success largely to the buy-in from Panera’s CEO, execs and board. “I've seen other DEI professionals in this space who are alone, without the level of support, engagement or executive-level buy-in that we have at Panera. Many are shouldering this work all by themselves, and as a result they have failed or have not gotten as far because of it,” Morris-Thornton says. “It has to be where we are all committed and can hold hands to do this work together because each of us has a part,” she says, pointing out that a leadership buy-in includes a financial commitment to the program.

Panera’s DEI strategic plan focuses on three key commitments:

Representation. “We heard from our associates that they wanted to see leaders who look like them,” says Morris-Thornton. In 2019, 47% of Panera associates were Black and indigenous people of color (BIPOC), yet only 7% of the company’s leaders (at the director level or above) came from the BIPOC community. Women comprised 58% of associates, but only 32% of leadership positions. 
In response, Panera instituted policies that require a diverse slate of candidates be considered when hiring for leadership positions. The company set goals of 37% women in leadership by 2021, which it met, and 10% BIPOC representation, which it surpassed (ending the year at 14%). The overall commitment is to have diverse leadership that closely reflects Panera’s associate population, with a goal of 50% women in leadership by 2023 and 30% BIPOC representation in leadership by 2026.

In 2021, Panera launched the Panera Dream Project, a leadership accelerator program that helps BIPOC associates and those facing financial hardship move up the ranks—a win-win proposition that helps Panera fill more of its talent needs from within while boosting underrepresented and under resourced groups. “This is an opportunity for Panera to unlock the dreams of our associates by providing them access to education, experience and ownership,” Morris-Thornton says passionately. 

Panera introduced the Panera Dream Project Scholarship earlier this year, awarding over $280,000 to 37 high-performing associates, giving them the knowledge and skills to pursue their dreams and achieve through education.  “The second track of the Panera Dream Project is a job rotational program.  As part of the program, plans are underway to offer a 6-12-month immersive experience to prepare high-performing diverse general managers to ascend to multi-unit managers, as well as an initiative that will help place our high performing, multi-unit managers on the path to become owners,”  Morris-Thornton adds.

Inclusive Culture. To foster an inclusive culture, Panera invites team members to join any of its six Business Resource Groups (BRGs), each dedicated to a specific community, such as BLAAC, which offers a support network for Black, Latinx, African American, African and Caribbean associates, and Panera Pride Alliance, which is dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community, Enabled (supporting people with disabilities), PWN (Panera’s Women’s Network) and Salute (focused on associates who are active duty or veterans). These groups help team members develop a sense of community and belonging and amplify the voices of these communities. For example, the Panera Pride Alliance recently led campaigns that encourage associates to update their associate profile to include their pronouns and gender expressions and to also use pronouns within their signature blocks.

Training and education have also become important parts of building an inclusive culture where Panera requires all company associates to complete cultural intelligence training, with the goal of improving day-to-day interactions among associates and with guests. Executive leaders attended a six-part conscious inclusion training focused on helping them foster a sense of belonging and engagement among their teams.

Community. A longtime supporter of community organizations that work toward inclusivity and equity, Panera upped its commitment since 2020. Headquartered in St. Louis, Panera expanded its relationship with the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, an organization that empowers African Americans and others throughout the region to secure economic self-reliance and social equality.

Panera donated $500,000 to establish the Panera Food pantry onsite at the Urban League’s headquarters, and teams up with the organization to conduct employment fairs and offer resume writing. Panera also entered partnerships with several other community organizations, including Girls, Inc. of St. Louis, which helps girls navigate life’s challenges; Boston Cares, one of the largest volunteer agencies for Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service; and the Daisie Foundation, a nationally recognized organization that provides opportunities for under-resourced women.

Looking to improve your restaurant’s DEI policies?

Check out a new toolkit from the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance:

ELEVATE—A Menu for Change. The ELEVATE toolkit includes a master guide with a step-by-step approach to developing an effective DEI culture in your restaurant organization, based on best practices and proactive business strategies. ELEVATE is an acronym standing for:

  • Explain your (DEI) business case
  • Listen and learn from your data (company makeup)
  • Enlist stakeholders and resources
  • Verify goals and success metrics
  • Advertise your work
  • Test your results
  • Engage your employees

To purchase ELEVATE, or for more information, see here