The story of a woman getting fired by Panera in the Washington Post this morning is a perfect lesson that other companies can learn from on several fronts. Check it out.
A woman by the name of Brianna posted this Tik Tok video of her pulling a bag of Mac n’ Cheese out of a water bath, cutting it open, and pouring it onto a plate.
The voice in the video is that of a man who laughs and can’t seem to believe what he’s seeing. Panera serves frozen food. The reactions have been swift and fairly negative as people perceive frozen food to be of poor quality. Headlines talk about her firing for “exposing” Panera.
But Panera uses a cooking method called Sous Vide. The process has chefs place ingredients in a BPA-free plastic bag, vacuum seal, and drop it in a water bath that has an immersion circulator in it. It makes sure the temperature of the water is consistent and moves around. This process gently cooks the food to the exact right temperature. In fact, the food can be left in for hours before serving because the food cannot overcook.
It is an extremely efficient way to cook delicious food. A lot of restaurants, including, high-end ones, use them as it allows them to have items like perfectly cooked steaks ready to sear and serve.
And when you flash-freeze the food immediately after cooking you have an expertly cooked dish that just needs gentle reheating. All of the nutrients are there, all of the goodness is there.
And that’s process Panera uses (as do others).
So what went wrong with Panera?
1/ Employee Education
First of all, if there is a policy prohibiting shooting video of a Panera cooking process and sharing online then her apparent firing, unfortunately, makes sense.
But the real missed opportunities start with employee education and on-boarding. Every single person who works at Panera should have a basic understanding of why the company chooses to prepare food using the sous vide method as well as what are the top-level benefits.
Takeaway: When companies bring employees into the process and educate them, they go from just being employees to brand ambassadors.
2/ Company Culture
But since Panera didn’t take that route, they’ve forced themselves to have a company culture that dictates rules for behavior rather than education for employees. This is the natural outcome of the two intersecting.
Takeaway: Information sharing creates a company culture where people are more likely to feel like owners and defenders of the brand.
3/ External Communications
Well, since the employee didn’t understand why Panera cooked things the way they do, she posted a video “exposing” Panera. Panera, in turn, fired here as theirs is a culture — one that doesn’t educate employees which helps them become brand advocates.
So, let’s take a look at what was said:
In a statement, the company defended its preparation methods, explaining that its mac and cheese is still a patently Panera product “made offsite with our proprietary recipe developed by our chefs.”
“It is shipped frozen to our bakery cafes — this allows us to avoid using preservatives which do not meet our clean standards,” the company said.
For a company that really tries to convey a warm, friendly place to get delicious, comfy yet clean, food, they sure don’t know how to convey that in their communications. Using saying things like “made offsite” and “allowing us to avoid using” is coming at this from the company’s perspective.
This was a missed opportunity to talk about the consumer benefits of sous vide preparation. For example, it could have gone something like this:
In a statement, the company defended its preparation methods, explaining that its mac and cheese is still a patently Panera recipe “our chefs develop the recipes which are then perfectly cooked and flash-frozen and gently re-heated our bakery cafes”
“By using this method, our customers get the best flavor and nutrition,” the company said.
Takeaway: Companies under attack have an opportunity and should talk about the benefits to consumers who are ultimately the target audience. And not couch itself in corporate defensiveness.
So there we have it. A snowballing communications situation that could’ve been prevented and a response that is not likely to help quell all the naysaying. Sure, we have a high evaporation rate for things like this. It will likely blow over for the most part soon enough. But it is a big missed opportunity for Panera to uplevel the perception of its brand. Learning to take situations like this and turn it into a positive should be every company’s goal.