A Lesson in Storytelling, Corporate Culture, and Social Business from Panera and Chipotle

by Ken Mueller on September 24, 2013 · 18 comments

Panera Bread

Español: Restaurant Chipottle Mexican Grill in...Over the past few months I’ve been following the social accounts of Panera and Chipotle and have witnessed something that goes beyond two chain restaurants who simply happen to be using social media very well. I’ve also seen them do a great job of articulating who they are and what they stand for. Watching what these two “fast casual” restaurants are doing has been inspiring, as I’m seeing how even fairly large chains can build healthy corporate cultures while growing their businesses and responding positively to the culture around them.

In an consumer culture that is increasingly suspicious of chains and big box stores, these two restaurants are making and promoting change in a way that might be considered corporate suicide. They are becoming more responsible in how they create and serve their products, while at the same time looking to make change in the individual communities in which they operate, as well as on a larger scale.

I first became aware of what Panera was doing when I started seeing more of their promoted links in my Facebook feed. When I clicked, I was pleasantly surprised. They had spent a lot of time and money to tell their story in an incredibly compelling way across a variety of platforms. What exactly was that story? The fact that they were making strides to be more responsive to their customers, and our culture, by making a commitment to serving antibiotic-free (read: healthier) meat. Panera does an incredible job of telling this story on a visually beautiful, interactive website: The Hard Road Leads to Good Stuff.


panera 2


The website is full of videos, activities, and socially share-able facts. I encourage you to spend some time there, playing around with all the different elements. Fair warning: you  might get lost in there, but in a good way. It’s fun and very informative. The “hard road” part of the story is that Panera admits that it isn’t easy to make all these changes, and that it’s a process in which they’re still very much involved. As Christopher Versace notes in an article in Forbes, Panera (along with Chipotle) has been experiencing great growth. Much of this is due to the vision of Panera co-founder, Chairman, and CEO, Ron Shaich:

Focusing on the customer experience, transparency and, as Ron says, simply “doing it right” are some of the strategies that led to that significant growth.

Additionally, Panera uses their blog to tell stories of their communities, customers, and employees. Not to mention the “pay what you can” Panera Cares Community Cafes which exist,

“Because we believe that everyone deserves a dignified dining experience in an uplifting environment regardless of their means. It’s as simple as that. This is our way of sharing in the responsibility and making a difference in the world we all share”

The beauty of this is that the mission of Panera and its internal culture are driven from the top down. CEO Shaich has been learning more about hunger in America by taking the SNAP Challenge, trying to eat on just $4.50 per day, and is blogging about the experience on LinkedIn, which I find interesting because that is the platform where his wealthy executive peers are most likely to connect with him and see what he has to say. In other words, he is using influence wisely, and in the right place.

A new video posted by the company, A Day in the Loaf, follows the life cycle of their baked goods, including those that don’t get sold. According to the video, Panera donates all the left over baked goods at the end of the day to local charities, to the tune of $100-million dollars last year.

While they have their detractors, Panera is doing a great job of moving forward, while managing expectations. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the great job they do across the social media landscape, particularly on the Panera Facebook page, but also on their Twitter , Pinterest, and YouTube pages.

While Panera’s campaign is presented under the banner of “Live Consciously, Eat Deliciously,”  Chipotle Mexican Grill seems to be travelling down much the same road using the phrase “Food with Integrity.” The fast casual chain also uses antibiotic free meats and hormone free dairy products, while also trying to source organic and local produce when possible.

Like Panera, Chipotle’s internal culture is driven from the top down by founder/CEO Steve Ells, as he has set up the Cultivate Foundation, which is designed to,

help fund initiatives that support sustainable agriculture, family farming, and culinary education.

In this case, Chipotle’s efforts were brought to my attention most recently by a new short film that was posted on Facebook, via YouTube. It has much the same feel as what Panera has done, and tells an important story in a short, yet compelling way. The film, The Scarecrow, is set to a beautiful rendition of the song “Pure Imagination” from the film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, as sung by Fiona Apple:

Not even online two weeks, the video has more than 6-million views. Viewers are also given the chance to download the song, with most of the proceeds going to support the work of the foundation. There is also an accompanying Scarecrow video game which can be downloaded for free on your iPhone or iPod.

But as I watched, I realized I was first exposed to Chipotle’s efforts two years ago when the video, Back to the Start, aired on television, and also appeared online, featuring Willie Nelson’s rendition of the Coldplay song, The Scientist.

You an also check out Chipotle’s efforts on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube.

While I generally try to support local, independent restaurants that focus on healthy, organic, and local food, I applaud both Panera and Chipotle for their efforts, and hope that what they are doing causes some rather large ripples in the stream. I would love to see more chains, especially the larger ones, go this route, and be more intentional about the food they serve, and the impact they are having on local communities. Sure, there will be naysayers, and the critics have already stepped up, decrying the truth of these efforts, or saying that the companies aren’t doing enough. Heck, there was even a Funny or Die parody of the Scarecrow.

But, both of these restaurant chains are exhibiting transparency while telling great and important stories, all the while doing the right thing. They’re not completely “there” yet, but they are close, and they are moving in the right direction, paving the way for others. I think they are functioning in ways that all businesses, small and large, should be functioning.

What other restaurants or businesses have impressed you with their storytelling, commitment to doing good, and strong, positive internal business cultures that impact their communities?


Fantastic examples of companies promoting transparency in their marketing efforts Ken. I am amazed at just how well some of these companies understand what modern consumers want to see, hear, and feel from their brands. Being in touch with consumer emotions is such a huge part of making transparency work. It's easy to see how Chipotle and Panera are striking that chord.


I 100% adore what both Chipotle and Panera have done and continue to do. Your last couple paragraphs made me think about McD's recent "change" that they hoped would reverse declining sales: selling their same (crap) food but in bulk!

I think it says so much about a company when they think long term, make a change for the better, and listen to customer trends and wants vs staying the course and hoping some new gimmick sticks.


Ken, great examples and thanks for highlighting these chains' individual efforts. 

A question: When you write, "They’re not completely “there” yet, but they are close, and they are moving in the right direction..." what do you see as the point of "arrival"for them? What would that look like if you were to write a follow up piece a few years down the road? 

KenMueller moderator

@John_Trader1 Agreed. What I'm curious about is how much of this was in response to consumer trends and how much was just them doing the right thing because they wanted to. I get the feeling both of those were factors.

KenMueller moderator

@LizJostes McDonalds (and other fast food chains) clearly understand that they need to make some changes to satisfy our changing diet, but as you said, they seem to be going about it the wrong way. Throw in a salad here, a yogurt cup there, some fresh fruit, etc. It's bandaids and additions, rather than real sustainable change. I would LOVE to see one of the big chains make a move like Chipotle or Panera, but I wonder what the cost would be. And how would customers respond. If there is cynicism with some toward these two restaurants, just think about the cynicism McD's would feel. 

I'm just really curious as to what this trend will mean to chain restaurants in general. Will others follow suit? And will it be done out of pure motives (and a change in internal culture) or more reactionary, which seems to me to be less sustainable over time. For both Chipotle and Panera, the philosophy is driven from inside out, and top down.


@KenMueller I know McD's is the biggest, thus the hardest to change. However, I feel like they are delaying the inevitable. Wouldn't it be easier to start making changes now rather than continuing with gimmicks of desperation? I just feel like the longer you try to ignore the *real* issue, the harder it will be to make up for lost time.

And your description of "bandaids" is spot on.


@KenMueller @LizJostes You talk about internal cultures. True that Micky D's was a majority share holder in Chipotle, but they divested itself of those holdings entirely. Partly, from what I read, because the cultures of the two companies were  not simpatico.

KenMueller moderator

@LizJostes I'm not sure if real change is possible if it isn't driven from the internal culture. That has to be hard to do at a company like McD's. They are an entrenched part of our culture. But...you're right. I think the traditional fast food chain that makes the first REAL move will have an advantage. 

The big issue is cost. It's not like McD's is the cheapest option anymore. I can eat at Panera for pretty much the same cost as a McDonalds or BK these days. I'm sure a wholesale change in their food policy would drive up costs, and that has to scare them.


  1. […] Original post: A Lesson in Storytelling, Corporate Culture, and … – Inkling Media […]

  2. […] A Lesson in Storytelling, Corporate Culture, and Social Business from Panera and Chipotle (inklingmedia.net) […]

  3. […] made the idea of sustainability and organic farming a part of their core culture. Then they have integrated that into their marketing, not just in terms of touting their own product and brand, but in seeking to drive the conversation […]

  4. […] made the idea of sustainability and organic farming a part of their core culture. Then they have integrated that into their marketing, not just in terms of touting their own product and brand, but in seeking to drive the conversation […]

  5. […] seen this sort of thing recently with initiatives from both Panera and Chipotle to become more sustainable and intentional about serving up antibiotic-free, non-GMO products. […]

  6. […] A Lesson in Storytelling, Corporate Culture, and Social Business from Panera and Chipotle (inklingmedia.net) […]

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