It’s been four decades since serial entrepreneur Ron Shaich opened a 400-square-foot cookie shop in Downtown Crossing and built it into one of the most successful chain restaurants in the world.
Shaich, the cofounder and former CEO of Au Bon Pain and Panera Bread, was among the first restaurateurs to recognize the promise of a new kind of dining: an upgraded version of fast food that was healthier, more personalized, and more varied than the traditional burgers and fries. Today, the fast casual segment of the restaurant industry is a $80 billion business, and salad, burrito, and wrap concepts reside on seemingly every block. But Shaich, who has opened 5,000 restaurants in his career and sold Panera in 2017 for $7.5 billion, is still hungry for more.
This fall, he sat down with Boston Globe reporter Janelle Nanos to talk about the third act and his new book, “Know What Matters,” for the Boston Globe’s Bold Types video series. Speaking from his home in Brookline, he shared lessons from his life in the food business, and offered insights into his work with Act III Holdings, his investment group that invests in new dining concepts. He’s currently the lead investor of Boston-based brands Tatte, Life Alive Cafe, and recreation venue Level99, as well as the national Mediterranean chain Cava, which earned a $4.7 billion valuation when it first went public in June.
Throughout his career, Shaich says, he centered his focus not only on the food, but also on creating spaces that served his guests more than just a meal. One of the major differentiators about Panera, he said, was that the restaurants became meeting points where communities could gather — in groups. While Starbucks had small tables and quick turnover, Panera’s larger footprints let people stay for hours, a factor that only intensified when it began offering free Wi-fi in the mid-90s. It was among the first restaurants to let people log on and linger.
“We were always trying to figure out: How do we make a difference in the lives of our guests?” Shaich said. “That’s the key in this business, make a difference, and build competitive advantage.”
Now he says he’s trying to figure out not only how to help promising new restaurants like Cava get big, but how to help the best existing restaurants survive in what has become an increasingly difficult climate to hang on.
“The restaurant industry is a little like dirt farming, it’s a tough, tough industry, and the world doesn’t need another restaurant,” Shaich said. “The only reason to open a restaurant is it’s meeting some primary or basic need that’s being unmet.”
Finding those niches remains his ongoing obsession.
“I used to work 150 percent of a normal person, now I’m at 90 percent,” he jokes. “I sort of feel this obligation to help these companies become what they can be, to fulfill their destiny. … For me there’s nothing more powerful, more fun, than figuring out what works.”