Commentary: What you can learn from Panera's 'hidden menu'

This article was written by retail educator and author Micah Solomon, who will be leading a session at this year's Retail Customer Experience Executive Summit. You can get up-close access to Micah and all of our educators in this intense day-and-a-half event, August 13-14 in San Diego. Special pricing is in effect this week only.

Effective customer service consulting (for restaurants and foodservice, as in other industries) starts by figuring out the customer’s point of view. Then — and only then — you consider the other stakeholders: IT, frontline employees, management, and, eventually, the shareholders. (This does not mean these stakeholders are less important than customers. But if you can’t make something work for a customer, there’s no reason to do it. So that’s where you start.)

In the case of Panera Bread fast casual restaurants, I was able to get the customer’s viewpoint, at least informally, by having a pretty delicious lunch.

First, I have to tell you a secret (can you keep it?). Panera has a new “hidden menu.” 

Does having a hidden menu make any sense? Does it make sense for Panera itself, or for other restaurants that are trying something similar? Most importantly, would it make sense for your business to follow suit? (Consider this question literally if you’re in foodservice, or figuratively if you’re in another industry that serves a public with varying tastes.)

My answer? “Well, maybe!" 

Here’s how, over lunch, I saw the lay of the land.

On the one hand, having a supposedly secret or hidden menu can come off to your customers as at least borderline silly. Customers are pretty much clued in that the menu is public knowledge by the QR-coded magnet near the register, by the postings on Facebook, the info that comes up if they simply Google “menu.” And anyway, in Panera Bread’s case, they’re publicly traded and little that they do is really secret, or, as they put it, “hidden.”

But it’s not easy to succeed in business without risking looking a bit silly, or at least playful, from time to time. So I certainly don’t hold this against Panera, and I doubt another customer would.

So let’s probe further into how a hidden menu feels to a customer.

If a customer finds out about the hidden menu and wants one of the items (mostly low gluten, low carb, lowish calorie offerings), ordering from the hidden menu actually can help a customer to feel special. At least a bit. The hidden menu concept can give a customer a slight sense of sharing something insiderish with the employees.

And — and this is a huge thing in today’s world — it’s fast. Rather than acting like a high-maintenance prima dona in an Altman movie, asking to substitute out nearly every ingredient in the original recipe, you can order hidden menu item 2, or 4. Done.

Of course, most customers don’t want anything to do with the items on a secret menu. (If most people do want one of the hidden items, the item should be moved to the regular menu.). So it saves time for uninterested customers to not to have to sift through these rarely ordered items.

And of course, it keeps you on brand. Why would a haven for gluten lovers like Panera, which even has the word “bread” in its name, want to bring up the carb or gluten concepts? It wouldn’t. Except if you are in need. And want to be in the know.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Donna Feldman
    Great discussion topic. I agree, keeping these minority-use items on a "secret" menu will save normal customers from having to waste time sifting through them. It also eliminates the guilt-by-association problem: if you've got so-called healthy food icons labeling some choices on the menu, what does that mean about all the other items that aren't labeled? Not healthy? But you don't account for the real reason certain customers engage in the time-sucking substitute-this-for-that behavior: they get major mileage out of feeling special. They're different from all the other common people. They need special food. And unfortunately this behavior is not going away, secret menu or not.
  • dennis medeiros
    I have spent my entire life in the Food Business, at various position,in various levels, I am now 50. I take issue with a couple of your comment made in this discussion. First, off if you don't know what the customers view is right at the start, you should be in another business, because while your figuring it out, you'll be out of business. You go into business to meet your customers' needs; don't you? Secondly, all Restaurants have Internal and External customer. Your internal customer, the Frontline, must be taken care of first, period. Failure to do so will result in a distorted External customer view. The results your looking for will become unattainable if you reverse the order. Dennis Medeiros
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