Blaine Hurst President and CEO of Panera Bread Speaks at Grove City College


On April 8th, Grove City College students flooded into Sticht Lecture hall to hear Panera Bread’s CEO discuss transformative leadership. Each semester, the Center for Entrepreneurship + Innovation hosts the Richard G. Staley ’62 Visionary Entrepreneur Speaker Series. The purpose of the series is to bring experienced entrepreneurs to campus to share their insights and wisdom. The Grove City College Campus and Community was thrilled for the opportunity to host Hurst.

Although Hurst is a successful executive, he is very personable and down-to-earth. He spoke about how he got a little sentimental after listening to Grove City students talk about Panera’s impact. He talked about his deep respect for Panera’s competetor, Chick-fil-A. Although the fast dining industry is competitive, Panera has become the leading catering business in the country.

The Innovation of Panera

Hurst believes this success was the result of digitizing the food ordering process and making all food “clean”. “Clean food” means that Panera’s food contains no artificial preservatives, sweeteners, flavors and no colors from artificial sources.

Panera disrupted the food industry through implementing these features, and quickly became known for its innovation in the restaurant industry. The money invested into Panera’s technology paid off when the company became the #1 caterer in the United States. Hurst believes that people can change the world through entrepreneurship, “one restaurant at a time.” According to Hurst, we change our society by being unconventional. Panera’s technological agenda leads to less customer friction and a more enjoyable experience. The “clean food” initiative provided Americans a way to make healthy eating convenient. Hurst also dreams that Panera will continue to diversify the workplace and become a leader in quality employment.

A CEO’s Inspiration

Hurst is a leader who seeks profit and transformative value in vocation. His grandmother had a large impact on Hurst’s worldview. At young age, his grandmother lost both of her parents and had to raise her siblings. She hitchhiked every day to college and worked as a house maid to cover her expenses. Although she had a difficult start to life, she lived as a servant leader. She saw people through God’s eyes, and transformed many lives as a result. After she retired from working in the church, she worked in a KFC to serve truck drivers. She became well known and adored by the hundreds of drivers who passed through, and impacted many lives through her joy and the way she loved those around her. This is why Hurst cares about Panera’s customers. He believes that food service offers the unique opportunity to connect with people. Hurst knows that his life is measured by how he treats people, not material worth.

Life Lessons from the CEO of Panera

Lesson 1: Know what matters.

We often lose sight of what’s important when within work and our career. In the Bible, God had to send a pillar of fire to keep the Israeli’s focus on him. As business workers, we need to sort out stupid little stuff from what is important. For Hurst, reducing customer friction is essential. Therefore, he keeps his focus on that goal. He honors God by serving those around him, just like his Grandmother.

Lesson 2: Do not boil the ocean.

Hurst’s second lesson is to “not boil the ocean.” We can all have great ideas, but we need to accomplish them through small tasks. Don’t try to change a workplace culture culture in a day. Adjust one rule that can be enforced. Change happens over time. If you try to change everything instantaneously, you will face greater opposition from your coworkers.

Lesson 3: Start with a small, focused, unbounded team.

Thirdly, Blaine recommends to start with a small, focused, unbounded team. If you can’t feed your team with a small pizza, your team is too big. Many business leaders restrict their teams. The best ideas come when people have the freedom to think outside the box. When people experiment, they get the best results. Allow your team to give their best, based on their imagination, talents and creativity. A single view or opinion can only go so far.

Lesson 4: Innovation is a journey.

Blaine believes that “innovation is a journey.” He shot down the myth that top players are sustainable. In business, there will always be competition. No matter how far you go, someone will try to go further. Therefore, companies must adapt to survive. No one remains at the top for long if the company refuses to experiment and challenge the market.

Lesson 5: Expect the unbelievers.

With his fifth lesson, Hurst shocked the audience. He stated: “Expect the unbelievers.” People do not like change. If you want to make a difference, you will make people upset. The board of directors at Panera almost fired Hurst after his proposal to bring technology to Panera’s customers. He ended this piece of advice with a Brene Brown quote: “You can choose courage or you can choose comfort. You cannot have both.” If you truly want to change the world, you need to be brave enough to do it.

Lesson 6: Run the race with joy.

Blaine has a lot of accomplishments, but he is the most proud of his son. Hurst’s son, David, has special needs and can’t verbally communicate. Despite these obstacles, Hurst believes that David is phenomenal. David wanted to be an athlete, so he joined his school’s cross country team. He had one mission: to finish a race. Due to his condition, David ran slower than the other athletes and needed to be monitored. As he ran, a janitor rode in a golf cart behind him. By the time David approached the finish line, most people had begun to leave. But, one of the maintenance workers got on the loud speaker rallying everyone back to the finish-line to cheer David on. As David crossed the finish line, a smile exuding pure joy took over his face. When Hurst went to thank the maintenance worker, and the man that drove behind him, they told Hurst that supporting David was one of the best moments of their life–how David had showed them true endurance and joy. A visual picture of what it looks like to “run the race with joy” regardless of the circumstances.

By the end of his talk, the room was filled with misty eyes. David’s story dramatically moved the audience. Blaine explained how his son inspires him every day.

Hurst’s heart makes him a fantastic leader. Although he did not say it outright, another lesson we can learn from Hurst is to simply remember to be human in our spheres of influence. It is brave to have compassion for others and show vulnerability.