Two years ago, though, Noodles & Company made the decision to re-evaluate the entire menu to take its clean ingredients a step further, Douglas says. That decision led the company to remove all artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners from its sauces, condiments, soups, and dressings, as well as to introduce an artificial ingredient–free bread and antibiotic- and added-hormone–free bacon. Douglas says the company is looking into added-hormone–free cheese and naturally raised steak and hopes to roll out antibiotic-free chicken by Q4 of 2016.
All of these things are relevant to Noodles’ core demographic, Douglas says, which today includes “busy, career-minded Millennial parents with families.”
“Today more than ever, these guests are looking for transparency just as much as healthy options to nourish their bodies,” he says via email. “They want to know what they are serving their families and are looking for a restaurant that can provide the fresh, homemade-cooking experience for them, so they can spend that extra time nourishing their most cherished relationships: their family.”
The VIA Agency’s Leahy says the public conversation around food additives like antibiotics, GMOs, and chemicals has been so negative that many customers no longer see clean ingredients as a positive option; they see it as an expectation. She adds that the expectation for these foods grows even as experts and scientists assert that certain additives, like GMOs, aren’t actually bad for the body.
“Honestly, the fast-casual segment made this affordable, at least perception-wise,” she says. “Once upon a time organic and antibiotic-free were something for the wealthy. But then enter Chipotle and everyone can have a salad with free-range chicken and antibiotic-free meat and farm-fresh vegetables.”
Searching for better ingredients
But it’s not just fast casuals who have committed to cleaner menus. Large quick-service brands are also answering customers’ calls for cleaner ingredients and committing to gradual shifts in sourcing practices.
Papa John’s is one such brand. The company that has made the tagline “Better ingredients. Better pizza.” a household catchphrase is doubling down on the “better” claim, pulling out dozens of artificial flavors. The company boasts on its website that there are 65 “unwanted ingredients removed or not used” on its menu, versus 35 at Panera and 80 at Chipotle. Meanwhile, it lists 24 “unwanted ingredients currently used” at Papa John’s compared with 54 at Panera and nine at Chipotle, and 14 “unwanted ingredients publicly committed to removing by 2016,” versus 54 at Panera and zero at Chipotle.
Founder and CEO John Schnatter says the process of cleaning up the menu began in earnest in the ’90s, when the company—which already used fresh dough, vegetables, and sauces—worked with its meat suppliers to take out any additives. The commitment progressed over time, he says, but the formal attempt to go “clean label,” which has been spearheaded by the company’s senior vice president of research and development, quality assurance (QA), and supply chain, Sean Muldoon, came together between 2010 and 2013.
“We really weren’t that smart; we were just trying to walk the talk, do what we thought was right in our heart of hearts on putting our money where our mouth is on ‘Better ingredients. Better pizza,’” Schnatter says. “We had no idea the Millennials would dig what we were already doing. It was just sheer luck, because we were just being defensive. This wasn’t an offensive play. Sean and his team have gotten us in a position where, by the end of the year, we’ll be within one or two ingredients of Chipotle on the clean label.”
That commitment doesn’t come cheap. In announcing its clean menu initiative earlier this year, Papa John’s stated that it spends about $100 million a year on the efforts. Schnatter says that figure will be more like $110–$120 million this year, adding that the extra cost comes from sourcing higher-quality ingredients.
Muldoon says keeping R&D, QA, and supply chain all under his purview has helped Papa John’s maintain its high clean-label standards. He says the ingredient changes take anywhere from six months to two years to implement, adding that the company works closely with its small group of suppliers to develop reformulated recipes.
He points to the chain’s sauces as one of the hardest ingredients to get right. “We have a supplier that has a team of really talented food scientists who we collaborate with, and they’re in our offices and in our labs a lot,” he says. “In terms of process, there’s a ton of sampling various iterations of recipes. We’ve got to get those recipes right to where we think they do two things: One, they deliver on our gold-standard flavor needs, but two, [they deliver] on our clean label as we define clean label. And sometimes it’s a challenge to do both those things.”
While the company has not committed to antibiotic-free proteins or GMO-free ingredients, Muldoon says his team will be “very strategic” and “very intentional” if it moves in that direction. He adds that the company learns from its global practices when rolling changes out domestically; for example, much of its European business is already GMO-free because of the way the agriculture infrastructure is established there.
Yum! Brands concepts Pizza Hut and Taco Bell have also taken strides in cleaning up their menus. Both companies committed this year to removing artificial flavors and colors, while Taco Bell also pledged to take out high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, partially hydrogenated oils, and unsustainable palm oil.
Dominique Vitry, director of culinary innovation at Pizza Hut, says customers today are more interested in learning about the foods they consume and are demanding more transparency, which is part of the reason the company chose to pull out unnecessary additives. But she says Pizza Hut also used the opportunity to improve upon its recipes to ensure the quality wasn’t just on par with before, but was even better.
“People hear things like removal of flavors or ingredients, and they start to think, ‘Oh, what have you done? Have you taken flavor out?’ And that is absolutely not what we’ve done here,” she says. “We want to make sure we are the best and we are the most flavorful, and we’ve got to get it right every time.”
Taco Bell’s menu cleanup has been going on for about a decade, says Liz Matthews, the brand’s chief food innovation officer. The company first reduced its sodium content by 15 percent and then simplified its menu further by removing things such as MSG and butylated hydroxyanisole. The pledge this May to remove artificial flavors and other ingredients—a process that had been in the works for a year and should be complete by the beginning of 2016—touched about 95 percent of the Taco Bell menu.
Matthews says Taco Bell’s scale made the cleanup complex. The company has several food suppliers and worked with each one to reformulate recipes and test each iteration. But the fact that the brand had close relationships with each supply partner and was already familiar with those partners’ vendors, she adds, made the process run more smoothly.
“Knowing that immediately, off the bat, already puts you ahead of the game. Just as we build partnerships with our strategic partners, they’re building those partnerships with their strategic partners,” Matthews says. “When you get everybody into a room and say, ‘This is where we’re headed’—and we all know as an industry this is where we’re headed and this is where we need to go in terms of what the customers are saying—you’d be surprised when you make the conscious decision of where you’re going; you get a lot more cooperation versus just talking to one partner.”
Next up on Taco Bell’s list of ingredients to remove is preservatives, Matthews says, which will be a little trickier to take out than artificial flavors. But when you’re a business with 50 million customers a week and those customers are telling you they want a cleaner menu, Matthews says, then it’s worth the time, effort, and money.
“I think our role is to listen to the consumers,” she says. “If they’re telling us they want less in their food, then you know what? Less is more for us; let’s remove where we can.”
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