I tried Panera's unprecedented new $9-a-month unlimited coffee subscription and found it was too good to be true

Panera subscription signup

  • Panera just launched an unlimited-coffee subscription that costs $9 per month, or about $108 annually.
  • I usually drink the free coffee at my office, but my editor asked me to try out Panera for a week to test the subscription.
  • I really wanted to love this service, but the coffee just wasn’t good, and the service was chaotic. 
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When my editor asked how I’d feel about getting free coffee for a month, I said I’d love it. I spent the next week testing Panera’s coffee subscription.

The subscription provides “unlimited” hot coffee, iced coffee, or hot tea at all Panera restaurants for a monthly fee of $9, or about $108 annually. Note that this means free refills in-store, or a coffee every two hours. Panera is rolling it out nationwide over the next week to members of its MyPanera loyalty program. A regular Panera coffee costs $2.49 in New York City, so the savings come around the fourth cup of coffee.

Panera tested this subscription model in three states before its nationwide debut.

“We are the first brand to do it, and we’re super excited about that,” Panera CEO Niren Chaudhary previously told Business Insider. “We feel that this is a terrific way to get consumers more interested in not only in our coffee platform but also for them to get exposed to the strength of the food that we have in our cafes, particularly around breakfast.”

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To sign up for the subscription, I had to join the MyPanera loyalty program. I made an account and put in payment information, and it was slightly annoying that I wasn’t able to input it through Apply Pay.

Including taxes, the subscription was just under $10, an extremely reasonable price for a month of coffee (including iced coffee!).

Once I signed up, the subscription appeared under the “rewards” tab in the app. It repopulates every two hours after being used.

As an added bonus, joining the rewards program gets you a free pastry. Panera seems to be hoping customers will continue buying food on their coffee runs.

Chaudhary told Business Insider that subscribers in test markets visited Panera almost every other day, and many of them did end up buying food. This worked on me one day this week, when I added a bagel to my order. 

I added the coffee to my order, then applied the reward. This part was intuitive and easy to use for me.

Placing an order at the location I selected was easy, and the subscription applied with no problem.

Panera says that online orders will be available within ten minutes of ordering.

The first day I tried it, my order was ready when I walked in, waiting for me on the Rapid Pick-Up shelf.

I’m not a coffee snob, and the hot coffee was fine for me, although I’m not sure if it would be worth paying for over free coffee in the office.

My experiences the rest of the week were less positive. The app frequently crashed mid-order, or sometimes refused to open at all over “maintenance.”

I also tried using the fast lane kiosks to order. I signed in to get my reward using my phone number, which was nice and simple.

However, there didn’t seem to be any particular protocol for where online or kiosk coffee orders go. Coffee is self-serve, so for most of the week I just ended up asking an employee for a cup after waiting in the pick-up area. The two days I ordered food were the days my cup was on the shelf, making it less than consistent.

The iced coffee also comes out hot, so it’s not great. It isn’t really an improvement from putting my office’s hot coffee over ice, for free. Note that cold brew is not included in the subscription.

Panera’s mobile order turnaround just isn’t on the same level as Starbucks or Dunkin, based on my experience. Most days I went the line at Rapid Pick-Up, which combines mobile orders and kiosk orders, was several people deep, with several employees dedicated to managing it and asking people what they ordered.

It was definitely nice to roll into work with an iced coffee on the first sunny day in a while, but this isn’t a service I’d pay for on my own. I do have the subscription through the rest of March, so I’ll be going back at least a few more times.

The subscription idea is smart, and I think with the kinks worked out and better coffee it could be a hit. Everything is turning into a subscription these days, anyway.