More Americans are showing a desire to eat healthier foods, both at home and when dining out. And Panera Bread wants to satisfy that desire. This fall, the fast-casual leader will roll out new menu items and continue to purge its menu of artificial additives, an evolution that will see greater tweaks to existing menu offerings and enhanced customization opportunities for individual diets.
Last month, head chef Dan Kish, who has been with Panera for over a decade, met with QSR at the company’s Panera Pantry—a pop-up location in Manhattan that showcases the new dishes—to discuss the evolution.
Kish says there are many changes coming to Panera this fall and beyond. After unveiling in May the “No-No List” of ingredients to be removed from the menu, the company has completed 85 percent of the removal, Kish says, with items like ammonium chloride, lard, and saccharin already purged. Ingredients like benzoic acid, sodium benzoate, high fructose corn syrup, and added nitrates will follow. The company wants to remove all artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives by the end of 2016.
“We have almond milk coming to the menu this fall that can be used hot or cold and still be food policy–compliant,” says Kish of the company’s dairy alternative for those who require it. “It’s not jumped up with things like thickeners that fool you into thinking it’s creamy. It’s real almond milk that’s got the real goods in it, very clean and natural. We’re trying to address all of the obvious dietary concerns and eating styles that people have.”
Kish emphasizes that Panera has a history of evolving its menu to better serve customers and improve the quality of its food. The company began using only antibiotic-free chicken in 2004. The use of other antibiotic-free meats followed, and meats that are not are raised with vegetarian diets. In 2005, Panera removed all artificial trans fat from its menu. In 2010, the brand became the first national restaurant chain to voluntarily display calorie counts on its menuboards, and three years later it introduced sprouted grains in its baked goods. Last year, the chain began using 100 percent grass-fed beef.
There are other challenges to face. While Panera sells gluten-free items, its restaurants have a gluten presence. Kish says the chain wants to be transparent about its food and locations since one can purchase gluten-free items there but might not want to consume them in an environment where gluten is present. Given its menu offerings, Panera focuses more on people who are wanting to cut down on their gluten intake.
While fellow fast-casual leader Chipotle recently made headlines by deciding to remove all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from its menu, Panera isn’t ready to follow suit.
“GMOs are really complex,” Kish says. “We’ve sat down and invited to the table folks with a broad spectrum of opinions, and we’ve just listened. One of the things we’ve learned is it’s way more complicated than we thought. It’s hard to draw a hard line; it’s not black and white. But we support labeling of GMOs—just like knowing what’s in your food, the source of your food is really important. We’re working toward making all that available to the customer.”
The company is working on some potential fall menu items and testing them in approximately a dozen California locations. The items include an Orchard Apple Roasted Turkey Cheddar Sandwich, a Turkey Rustico with Caramelized Kale Sandwich, and an Ancient Grain Arugula & Chicken Salad.
The Turkey Rustico has been very popular, says Tom Gumpel, Panera’s head baker. “It’s got a lot of texture, a lot of crunch, and really good protein from the meat and grains,” he says of the salad.
When Gumpel joined the company, “Atkins [Diet] was alive and well,” he recalls. Bread merchants were faltering, but now “the bread renaissance is coming back in full form.” He adds that Panera believes deeply in its brand, which will drive future decisions.
“[The future is about] clearly introducing more whole grains, sprouted grains, and ancient grains through the bread and some of our salads across the menu in different ways,” he says. “Staying away from refined grains is probably a good thing.”
A new Panera system has been unveiled that offers guests customizable ordering through kiosks, online, and smartphone apps. They can input choices dependent on their nutritional needs, and the selections can be saved and then accessed by a cashier through either the customer’s loyalty account or phone number. The three menu categories include Vegetarian, Gluten Conscious, and Protein Rich. The company is working on combinations of those categories next.
“Over the course of the next several months, we are going to start to curate menu items based on the pantry we have and the eating styles that are important to people,” Kish says. The curated menus are posted on PaneraBread.com and will be available as takeaway menus in the bakery-cafes starting in July. The company says that the curated menu functionality is not available on any eCommerce applications yet, but plans are in the works.
Given that the 1,800-plus unit chain reportedly serves more than 10 million people per week, it can be challenging making sweeping menu changes. Kish admits that there is a financial balancing act that must be observed. He says Panera “looked at organics very discreetly,” trying to introduce them where they matter most and are affordable.
“We found great inroads around natural [foods], but everybody’s got a ceiling,” he says. “We believe in access to good food, and the economics around good food shouldn’t just be for a small percent of the population. We want to make it widely available, and that’s one of the benefits of being in almost 2,000 locations. You can cast a wide net.”