I was at a meetup at Panera Bread this evening, and, more than any other restaurant I have ever seen, Panera knows the value of, and the way to keep, a group.
First, if you are not familiar with Panera, let me tell you a bit about them. Panera is a national chain of restaurants. They make panini, salads, and various other kinds of yuppyish food without seeming pretentious. Customers go to the counter to place an order and get a little remote vibrating device to inform them when their food is ready. They were in the news a little while ago because they are working on a model for a charity restaurant. The concept is "pay what you can." People who do not have the means can pay nothing. Others may pay more than the menu price to help those in need. Interesting idea that I think will work.
The group was expected to be about 5-8, but it turned out to be 17. This made Panera a bit small for the group. Hard for people at one end of the table to talk to the other. I have been to many places with various groups. Some places get it that groups are good and are friendly enough. Other places don't get it at all and harass the group, insisting that everyone order something. (Most places in the later category have gone out of business for some reason.)
This Panera, however, really nailed it. I have mentioned before the value of giving before getting. Well, tonight, an employee comes over with a tray full of smoothies, and not shot glasses either, but 8 oz cups. They were free. Smoothies all around. No particular explanation, just free smoothies all around. Later, a manager came by to clear plates out of our way so we could keep talking. (Normally you bus your own dishes.)
I rarely see such good table service at restaurants that have waiters, let alone one which is normally counter service. Needless to say, some full sized smoothies were purchased after the gratis ones were handed out.
This particular group will probably end up meeting elsewhere just because it is really too big for the venue, but you can bet that if any of those 17 people needs to pick a place for a meetup, Panera will be high up on the list.
This is a company to watch. Consistently high quality and service. One of the first restaurants to offer free wifi in every store. Excellent Twitter presence, and a creative mindset. I hope that they keep it up, as they continue to impress me in many ways,