As consumers’ mobility increases, breakfast on-the-go is coming back. Seizing on the return of the bakery café, Ampex Brands, a franchisee founded in 2005 that operates close to 600 quick-service restaurants (QSRs) and convenience stores, is now becoming a franchisor — the company recently announced that it has acquired bakery chain Au Bon Pain from parent company Panera Bread.
“If you look at the bakery segment, business is coming back, whether it’s the corner bakeries of the world or Panera or any bakery concept you can think of,” Ampex President and CEO Tabbassum Mumtaz told PYMNTS in an interview. “Definitely coming back over where they were in ‘19 or ’18. I see nothing but customers coming back for the smell of the fresh bread, and our focus is to keep it simple.”
To begin with, Ampex’s Au Bon Pain makeover will focus on drive-thru, targeting consumers’ new post-COVID restaurant habits, and then branch out into other store models.
“The QSR business … is all about convenience, and it’s also about contactless,” Ericka Garza, the new Au Bon Pain brand president, told PYMNTS. “As we look into the future, [we will] start looking at different footprints and different prototypes of our business, we are going to highly consider [adding more] drive-thrus … [to] make it more effective and productive of their time.”
Rethinking The Restaurant
While most of the brand’s locations feature grab-and-go options and on-premises dining capabilities, there is already a limited number of drive-thru locations in Miami, Florida, which have been successful. Garza describes these as “like a business within the business,” noting that the customer service and the convenience keep customers coming back.
To that point, PYMNTS research from the May edition of our Order to Eat report created in collaboration with Paytronix finds that more than 1 in 4 vaccinated restaurant customers would be encouraged to spend more on their food orders if the restaurant offered drive-thru pickup.
The pivot toward drive-thru comes at a time when many restaurants are looking to take advantage of the popularity of the channel, racing to offer the quickest and most frictionless drive-thru experience through a combination of mobile order-ahead integrations and artificial intelligence (AI) features that personalize the experience.
Looking ahead, in addition to adding more drive-thru locations, the brand is also, conversely, looking to offer a space for consumers to spend time and connect, much like Starbucks’ third place philosophy.
“We are looking at both models in our industry,” said Mumtaz. “The most expensive piece of equipment is an empty chair, so we’re looking at smaller footprints as well as larger footprints where we can make sure that customers and guests are comfortable sitting relaxing, having a cup of coffee [and a] piece of bread.”
This deal, which is reported to include around $60 million in assets, features not only the acquisition of Au Bon Pain’s 171 existing locations but also franchising rights to 131 more locations — that’s a 77 percent increase in unit count.
“In the future you will see some of our locations with just a slightly different look,” Garza said. “But again, we’re still looking at different opportunities.”
She noted the chain’s existing three Market Fresh restaurants, which emphasize the brand’s baked goods, as one example of the sort of different restaurant models that the company will experiment with going forward.
Refreshing The Brand
While Au Bon Pain may have lost some of the shine it may have had in the ‘00s, Garza said, “It is not a broken brand — it is not a brand that needs transformation.”
Still, she went on to say, “It is a brand that we are going to give relevance, and we’re going to give it the energy and the attention that it has deserved.”
Mumtaz added that the company, since the announcement of the acquisition, has been “getting a lot of calls already” from interested potential franchisors, though for now the company is holding off on signing new deals. First, Ampex is looking to build out its infrastructure and nail down its plans for the brand.
Go Big Or Go Home
With the resurgence of breakfast away from home and with the global increase in mobility, Ampex is looking to grow Au Bon Pain beyond the two countries in which it currently operates — the United States and Thailand.
Garza said that, in addition to experimenting with “different footprints here domestically,” the brand is also currently “mapping out to be able to expand globally.”
Of course, the most immediate goal is to customers back into existing restaurants, establishing post-pandemic habits to last into the future.
“A year from now, I would say that our sales need to be back,” said Mumtaz. “The pandemic is slowing down. People are coming out more. For sure, the U.S. is tired of staying home, and I think people can’t just wait to get out … Everybody is excited to be back and getting businesses to where they should be.”