Panera, the fast-casual restaurant chain, is completely transforming itself — from its back-office systems right down to the menu items. There are new services — including catering and table service — and there’s even a new kind of staff member, known as an “expo,” to double-check the accuracy of the firm’s new customizable orders and establish a little more rapport with visitors. At Forrester’s Forum for Customer Experience Professionals, June 16th and 17th in NYC, Blaine Hurst, chief transformation officer at Panera, will be sharing lessons learned from this massive innovation initiative. Here are some comments Blaine made during a recent conversation I had with him. I hope you enjoy them, and I look forward to seeing you in NYC!

Q: I don’t meet chief transformation officers too often. How would you describe your role?

A: When I came onboard with Panera, it was to envision and launch what we’ve come to call Panera 2.0 — a truly enhanced guest experience, powered by technology and enabled by ops excellence. If you look at the way we approached 2.0, you start to understand the role of a chief transformation officer. We looked for the ways that technology could transform the guest experience versus focusing on the latest gadgets for the sake of being “first” or “cutting edge.” I use the same lens in my role as chief transformation and growth officer. How can Panera win by applying technology or innovative thinking to truly transform and grow? In my role, I oversee business processes ranging from digital strategy to catering and delivery.

Q:  What was the catalyst for Panera’s innovation efforts over the past few years?

A: The guest experience. We didn’t set out to pioneer the latest technology for the sake of technology; we wanted to fix the “mosh pit.” Anyone who had been to a busy Panera during lunch could remember that crowded counter where you waited with your buzzer for your food. It didn’t matter if you were ordering for dine-in or carry-out — all guests funneled through the same cashier-based ordering system. Panera 2.0 was a chance to rethink the entire process — from ordering to operations to food delivery. What we’ve delivered with the Panera 2.0 model is an integrated experience that meets the differentiated needs of to-go, eat-in, and large-order-delivery customers through new mechanisms for ordering, payment, production, and, ultimately, consumption. 

Q: Panera has made tremendous investments in back-office technologies going back several years now. Which came first: the technologies or a vision for a new kind of CX?

A: Our vision for an enhanced customer experience, which delivered on personalization, drove our selection and implementation of technologies. We set out imagining a guest journey that allowed for easier customization of our menu and the ability to choose when/where to eat your food, and technology and operations upgrades brought that vision to reality.

Q: What does success look like for Panera in five years?  

A: We’ll continue to champion accessibility and wellness. The Panera of today, and the future, will find ways to deliver the highest quality soups, salads, and sandwiches in a way that fits your lifestyle. That means customization of product and of delivery. You should be able to order exactly what you want from Panera — with customization — and access that meal in a way that best fits in your day (delivery, rapid pickup, kiosk ordering, dine-in).

Hear more from Blaine on June 17th at Forrester's Forum for Customer Experience Professionals in NYC.