A creative marketing plan to help Panera Bread maximize free Wi-Fi ROI

“Help us continue to offer our free Wi-Fi.”

Free Wi-Fi at Panera bread

Portion of the Panera Bread splash screen displayed when users log on to the Internet. My PR plan could help Panera Bread maximize the benefit of their free Wi-Fi

On a beautifully sunny (but freezingly cold) weekday afternoon, I’m sitting at Panera Bread in Skokie, Ill. using the free WiFi. There are at least a dozen other people doing the same thing.

At that table, three people are having a business meeting, reviewing printed documents and gazing at the screen of their laptop. At the next table, two women are having some kind of meeting involving something on their computer screen.

Several years ago, Panera made me a customer for life by establishing the trend of offering a free wireless Internet connection to diners, office-less road warriors and work-at-home types who were bored by their basements.

It became so popular, that now the fast-casual restaurant chain must remind me at every login not to stay in the cafe too long and not to single-handedly hog a table for four. That’s cool.

Here’s my creative idea, a sample marketing plan outline offered for discussion at your favorite business school.

These creative marketing ideas might help Panera expand on their popularity with the Internet-addicted masses, specifically the business folks.


  • Increase catering sales for in-office lunch meetings or seminars
  • Create more opportunities for affinity marketing
  • Promote new products (like that yummy thai chopped salad I enjoyed today)
  • Generate additional in-store revenue

The creative marketing plan:

Get my email address: I’m sitting here for free. In exchange, I’m willing to give Panera my email address. Just ask for it when I log in to Internet access. Tie this registration in with your new “My Panera” affinity card program.

Send me the news: Do a weekly email newsletter targeted to road warriors, with articles about cloud computing, mobile gadgets and business networking.

Be my friend: Offer me a 50-cent discount on a shortbread cookie if I join your fan page on Facebook.

Free cookie: Come to think of it, you should give me a free shortbread cookie right now in exchange for my plan.

More power: Install more electrical outlets, and require the use of a proprietary adapter, which you can rent for $1 an hour. When my laptop battery is dead and I’m on deadline, I’d pay any amount of money for electricity (please don’t tell Commonwealth Edison I said that).

Shortbread cookie

A shortbread cookie is a great reward for strategic thinking.

Help me: Partner with Best Buy’s Geek Squad to offer limited support for popular software.

Meet me in St. Louis: Founded as the Saint Louis Bread Co., Panera could leverage social media to create a business networking group that meets for coffee (and shortbread cookies) in the store.

Ok, enough brainstorming for now. I’m hungry. Where’s my cookie?

UPDATE: Hey what do you know? I activated my MyPanera card and there’s a reward waiting for me: a Free Espresso Drink/Smoothie. I hope that means espresso OR smoothie, because I don’t drink espresso and I really like Panera’s smoothies.

Jonathan Lehrer is the proprietor of MrCommunicator.com. He strongly suggests that you click the “where’s my cookie” link.


  1. Brilliant, Jonathan! A wonderful read and great ideas for Panera. I hope you hear from their corporate office!

  2. If they adopt your email address required for login, you’ll get your free cookie–on your computer!

  3. The free Wi-Fi that many coffee places offered over the years is a concept that is starting to disappear. This is due to the fact that many users buy one cup of coffee and sit at a table for an hour or longer. In the retail biz, we called this a loss leader…something that was a loss for the retailer but led customers into buying other things. Unfortunately, the idea isn’t working but yours is a delicious way to “fix” this problem.

  4. Yes indeed, a brilliant idea Jonathan. A few years ago I camped out at a Panera in another suburb because my child had to attend a special school near the restaurant for a week. I couldn’t think of enough ways to show them my gratitude. They HAVE made me and my family customers for life, and I would willingly give them my email, table rental fees, or a promise to come in twice per month if they asked for it. So let’s start a “Show Panera Some Love” campaign on Twitter or FB, urging Panera to expect more from all of us enjoying their comfy surroundings.

    • Jonathan Lehrer

      May 31, 2011 at 10:40 pm

      Hmmm, thanks Michelle, that sounds like a good idea! And a good excuse to pay another Panera visit for yet another shortbread cookie.

  5. Shannon Macri - Meriden,Ct

    September 3, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    I hate the free Wi-Fi where I live because it attracts customers that’ll hog up a whole table for 3-4 hours at a time and they only buy a coffee. I feel bad for those of us that have food but can’t find a place to sit because of these losers that take advantage of free Wi-Fi.
    I miss the days when people actually used a table to eat and relax. NOT FOR INTERNET. Panera managers need to make sure these losers only stay on 30 minutes when it’s busy . They can care less here where I live.

  6. What a terrible idea. I won’t use Panera’s Wi-Fi if I have to give them an email address, and I won’t buy things from them if I’m not using their Wi-Fi. I don’t use their stupid cards, either, despite them annoying me with it every time I buy something.

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