Panera Workers Say People Are Taking Advantage of Unlimited Sip Club

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  • Six Panera workers across the US told Insider about stolen drinks at their stores.
  • Some locations have moved drinks behind the counter to prevent thefts.
  • Panera says “fraud is a normal part of the restaurant business.”

Panera debuted its drink membership, Unlimited Sip Club, earlier in 2022, and some workers say it’s leading to theft. 

Insider spoke to six workers who reported regular thefts of drinks in their stores. Their identities were verified by Insider, but they remain anonymous because they were not authorized by Panera to speak to the press.

Members who pay a monthly fee of $11.99 get access to unlimited refills of all of Panera’s drinks every day. In many locations, customers mobile order their free drink, grab a cup, and fill it without interacting with a worker. Workers told Insider the system is easy for non-members to exploit, by filling up cups without paying and letting workers assume that they’re paying members. 

“The most stolen beverages by far are the caffeinated lemonades,” a manager in Michigan told Insider. All three flavors of charged lemonade, plus regular lemonade, use the same drink base, and the loss is “astronomical” at his store, he said.

Charged lemonades are also the most stolen drinks in a Florida location, a cashier told Insider.

“The bubbler drinks are absolutely the most stolen drinks in the store,” he said, referring to drinks outside of a standard soda fountain. Along with customers taking drinks that they didn’t pay for at all, some will pay for a soda and then get the more expensive lemonade or tea, which is priced 80 cents above a soda at his location.

A California worker said people frequently steal drinks from his store too, but they tend to take coffee and tea. 

According to Panera, thefts are not making a significant dent in the bottom line of the Unlimited Sip Club.

“We are extremely pleased with the profitability and economics of Unlimited Sip Club. Fraud is a normal part of the restaurant business. We are always innovating to optimize the entire guest and associate experience including our USC membership,” the company told Insider in a statement.

Managers at the Florida store told workers to move the more expensive charged lemonades behind the counter, to minimize these thefts, the worker said. A manager in the southeast told Insider that all charged lemonades in her market are behind the counter because “stores were losing money.” Panera says that moving drinks behind the counter is a “limited small test.”

Four of the six workers Insider spoke to said that cups and drinks at their stores are available for customers to take, not behind the counter. They attributed the setup to staffing ability, not a lack of thefts. 

“We cannot feasibly move the beverages behind the counter because that would force every honest customer to ask us for cups for their beverages,” the Michigan manager said. “We have a hard enough time meeting the corporate standard for speed and cafe cleanliness,” he said, without also distributing hundreds of cups each day.

Most workers agreed that the thefts were not a big concern for them. “We’re told it’s not that big of a deal, which I actually agree with,” a West coast worker told Insider. “We have plenty of cups and someone just taking a few is not seriously damaging our finances.”

Panera launched the Unlimited Sip Club in April 2022 for $10.99 per month, with the price planned to increase to $11.99 in January. Members get access to 26 drinks including tea, coffee, fountain drinks, and lemonade. Previously, the chain had a $9 per month coffee subscription, launched in 2020. By the end of 2021, the coffee subscription had 600,000 members, half of which were paying customers, while the other half were in their free promotional period.

The promotion successfully brought subscribers in eight times more frequently than non-subscribers, and 30% of them added food to their orders. Counterintuitively, ignoring some drink thefts might be worthwhile if paying subscribers brings in enough extra profit.

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