Panera Bread has long been known for three food categories—soup, salad, and sandwiches. You can now add grain bowls to the list.

In what chief growth and strategy officer Dan Wegiel calls Panera’s “biggest product launch of the year,” the fast casual introduced two warm grain bowls systemwide Wednesday, Baja and Mediterranean. But it isn’t so much the menu items themselves that has the brand buzzing.

Panera worked on grain bowls for the better part of two years, Wegiel says. And the result is a fresh category it will continue to innovate around throughout the calendar and beyond.

Grain bowls are being positioned as another entrée stock on 2,300-unit Panera’s menu and respective displays, digital, and analog assets, and being given “significant real estate” and investment, Wegiel says.


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They’re even accompanied by a new integrated marketing and creative campaign labeled “Full of Good,” which includes digital, TV, OTT, out of home, and other mediums.

Akin to the product launch, Wegiel says “Full of Good” is Panera’s most extensive marketing campaign of 2019. “We’re putting a significant amount of resources behind it,” he says.

“You will see a full ecosystem of marketing around the grain bowl category for the next several months,” adds Sara Burnett, Panera’s VP of wellness and food policy. “It ladders up to our overarching tagline, ‘Food As It Should Be,’ which still stands. But ‘Full of Good’ really represents what we are talking about—this idea and notion of fulfillment. Grain bowls really do fulfill on multiple levels.”

Panera tested grain bowls in a number of markets, Wegiel says. Baja and Mediterranean rose to the top of more than 20 different flavor combinations.

The Baja Grain Bowl is made with cilantro-lime long grain brown rice, a mix of red and golden quinoa, grilled citrus pepper chicken raised without antibiotics, black bean and corn salsa, house-made salsa verde, red grape tomatoes, fresh avocado, Feta crumbles, and whole milk Greek yogurt.

The Mediterranean Grain Bowl features cilantro-lime long grain brown rice, a mix of red and golden quinoa on a bed of fresh arugula, layered with grilled citrus pepper chicken raised without antibiotics, red grape tomatoes, Kalamata olives, diced cucumbers, hummus, lemon tahini dressing, feta crumbles, and whole milk Greek yogurt with a squeeze of lemon.

Both were designed for flexitarian diners, and can be ordered as a plant-forward option or with chicken for a meal with a total of at least 29 grams of protein.

Panera's Mediterranean Grain BowlPanera Bread's Baja Grain Bowl

Panera brought four new pantry ingredients to restaurants for the bowls as well: hummus, lemon tahini dressing, long grain brown rice, and salsa verde, which is made in-store every day.

Burnett says it took several months of training, including closing stores for several hours, to train employees on the process. Also, to get them educated on the flavor profiles and engaged with Panera’s bowl direction. Temporarily shuttering locations gave operators “an opportunity to really explain to our associates the story behind the products, the flavors, let them taste it, experience it,” Burnett says. “And so, our training procedures were relatively long. It takes about three months until we can roll this out to all the different communication channels and give everybody not only the knowledge how to execute it, but also how to speak to it as a new product.”

On this idea of “fulfillment,” Wegiel says, it’s really the next phase of Panera’s 100 percent clean movement. Previously, it was centered on what the chain removed from food. Namely, the “no-no list” Panera garnered national headlines for. This campaign is about what remains.

“That wasn’t the fullness of the definition of ‘Food As It Should Be’ or what we meant by clean,” Wegiel says. “It was also about the good things in our food. What is special about grains, plants, and proteins—the real pillars of our pantry and our ingredients. … You’re going to see more and more from us pushing the boundaries of that because we believe there are things we can do but others cannot when it comes to the quality of those ingredients and the standards we’re going to put behind them.”

Grain bowls are as filing as a sandwich from a hearty standpoint and as fulfilling as a salad when it comes to nutritional value and wellness, Wegiel says.

“We think this is a category that really embodies where the consumer is going but also really where we can manifest the brand in a very powerful way.” — Dan Wegiel, chief growth and strategy officer at Panera.

Additionally, they represent a trending product, he adds, and one that fits into some of Panera’s other recent pushes, including delivery and dinner. Bowls lend to customization, especially via digital, and are portable. And with the option of added protein, can be filling past Panera’s lunch stronghold. More than 75 percent of the brand’s business takes place post-11 a.m., with dinner accounting for only roughly a quarter to a third depending on the location.

There was a Teriyaki Chicken & Broccoli and Pesto Chicken Bowl in Panera’s recent dinner pilot. The brand, however, intentionally didn’t talk about the grain bowls at the time.

Wegiel believes grain bowls now offer Panera a unique chance to spread this category at a scale it hasn’t seen before. And they leverage global flavors gaining momentum. “I would argue [grain bowls] are trending, but not uniformly across the country. Some of these things start on the coast and they don’t necessarily proliferate at the same pace,” he says. “Because of our footprint and our presence nationally, we think we can bring a category like this mainstream and reach more customers everywhere.”

Burnett says bowls will quickly become a vehicle for Panera to deliver complex flavors in the future since it can layer ingredients. “We’re going to create a lot of different, awesome flavors for our menu, not just these two you’re going to see launching today,” she says.

Wegiel says Panera expects gain bowls to drive incremental business and extend the company’s relevance. “We believe it will help us acquire some new customers and definitely open up relevance to a younger crowd as well,” he says.

“We think this is a category that really embodies where the consumer is going but also really where we can manifest the brand in a very powerful way,” Wegiel adds.

Fast Casual, Menu Innovations, Web Exclusives, Panera Bread