Panera Steps Into Chicken Sandwich Craze

    The product follows the release of flatbread pizza in 2020 and grain bowls in 2019. 

    Fast Casual | March 22, 2022 | Ben Coley
    Panera's new chicken sandwich.
    Panera
    The sandwiches, starting at $10.99 come as a 'Signature Take' and 'Spicy Take.'

    Panera announced on Tuesday its entrance into the chicken sandwich game, a significant move that will create more daypart versatility and capture new audiences, the company said. 

    The chain's new Chef's Chicken Sandwiches—including a "Signature Take" and "Spicy Take"—will be available nationwide on March 30 starting at $10.99. 

    Panera said the grilled—not fried—sandwiches lean into consumers' shift toward comfort and craveable foods. The company also believes the product will appeal to new audiences, including males and younger demographics seeking heartier items. 

    “With Panera’s new Chef’s Chicken Sandwiches, we’re launching an exciting new platform, that will delight our guests. This is no ordinary chicken sandwich,” Eduardo Luz, chief brand and concept officer, said in a statement. “This is for a guest looking for a delicious, chef-crafted, gourmet-level sandwich, freshly prepared and made with Clean ingredients in true Panera fashion. This will shatter the expectations of what a chicken sandwich should taste like, and we think they’re worth every bite and every penny.”

    The sandwich features a quarter pound all-white meat chicken breast marinated with Panera's signature spice blend. The meat is seared to a golden brown and then finished sous vide. The filet is topped with garlic aioli sauce and either parmesan crisps or spicy, crispy pickle chips, and placed between two brioche buns. The signature sandwich includes emerald greens while the spicy version has spicy buffalo sauce. 

    Both are made without artificial preservatives, sweeteners, flavors, and colors from artificial sources. They're also served in a tear away, recyclable box that protects the brioche buns and prevents sauce from dripping. 

    “Our chefs and bakers know how to combine flavors to create elevated culinary classics – The Familiar, Made Fantastic. We’ve brought that expertise to this new category many times over,” Claes Petersson, head chef and chief food innovation officer, said in a statement. “We always love crafting a new offering from Panera’s pantry of Clean ingredients, because we believe Clean food, freshly prepared, tastes delicious. From the juicy chicken breast filet to the spicy, crispy pickle chips, our two new Chef’s Chicken Sandwiches pack a serious flavor punch.”

    Panera

    Panera's tear away box for its new chicken sandwiches. 

    The rise of chicken sandwiches dates back to 2019, when Popeyes lit the chicken sandwich category on fire with its viral sensation, helping the brand triple foot traffic and increase AUV by $400,000. Quick-service competitors took notice and followed with their own iteration, including McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Zaxby's, Wendy's, Jack in the Box, and more.

    And like Popeyes, the innovation has proved fruitful. Months after McDonald's released its crispy chicken sandwich lineup, the company said the product was exceeding expectations and that restaurants were selling "substantially" more sandwiches than previous versions. Also, in August 2021, Restaurant Brands International CEO Jose Cil said Burger King's Cil Ch'King sandwich showed healthy volumes, doubling the number of its previous chicken sandwich, and expanded the chain's demographic to those with higher incomes and spending power. 

    Panera has spent the past few years extending into new food categories and building innovation around all times of day. For instance, in 2019, the fast casual rolled out warm grain bowls systemwide, which were developed for two years and dubbed the "biggest product launch of the year" by then Chief Growth and Strategy Officer Dan Wegiel. The chain followed that up with the 2020 launch of flatbread pizza, a portable product built to compete in the increasingly off-premises industry. 

    While the chicken sandwich, grain bowl, and flatbread pizza fuel the lunch and dinner dayparts, Panera's coffee subscription program drives morning traffic. The service was announced in February 2020 and hauled in roughly 100,000 signups during the initial rollout. Thanks to a social media campaign in June of that year, 700,000 people joined the program in three weeks.