Panera Breads eliminated artificial trans-fats and antibiotic-treated chickens from its approved ingredient list almost a decade ago. Now, it is making a bold pledge to remove all artificial additives — including coloring and preservatives — from its café menus by the end of 2016.
The move is part of a sweeping new policy for the $2.4 billion restaurant chain that stresses "clean food," a deeper level of transparency about what is included in menu items, and heightened attention to how livestock and poultry have been raised, whether fish is wild-caught in a sustainable manner and how palm oil is sourced.
"Our commitment to the core tenets of Food Policy extends back to our earliest days, when we set a course to be the antithesis of heavily processed and commercial food and change the way Americans ate by offering something better, something people could feel good about," the company writes in its new policy. "We began with a simple commitment: to bake fresh bread from fresh dough every morning in every bakery-café. That single, powerful commitment set the stage for a series of conscious, challenging decisions that have essentially made Panera what it is — an organization committed to getting 'the tough stuff done with optimism and mastery,' particularly when it comes to our food."
Why now? Ron Schaich, founder, chairman and CEO of Panera, points to societal issues including concerning rates of obesity, metabolic syndromes such as diabetes and autoimmune deficiencies that appear linked to diets heavy in preservatives and additives. With a growing portion of the population thinking about wellness and disease prevention, it is Panera's responsibility to be part of the solution, he said: "We have to figure out where the world is going and make sure that Panera is there when the world arrives. The facts are obvious — there is something broken here."
You'll see the new policy rolled out methodically over the next two years, menu item by menu item, across the company's roughly 1,800 bakery-cafes in 45 states and Ontario, Canada. The locations operate under the names Panera Bread, Saint Louis Bread Co. and Paradise Baker & Café.
"I think that what makes this so tough is that it often means we have to go from our supplier to their providers, three or four different levels down," Shaich said. "The toughest part is the will to do this."
One item that will be addressed by July is the company's Summer Corn Chowder soup, which is being reformulated to remove additives including tapioca dextrin, modified corn starch, autolyzed yeast extract, corn maltodextrin, coconut oil derived from triglycerides and modified food starch.
Two other examples offered by Sara Burnett, senior manager of quality assurance for Panera Bread, are the restaurant's Mediterranean flatbread and items that included roast beef. The flatbread now uses tzatziki sauce made in-house to remove preservatives and curried lentil hummus that is free of additives. It took a multi-step process to come up with a new roast beef recipe, one that removes the preservatives and artificial colors used by the old ingredient. Ultimately, Panera replaced its deli-style roast beef with sirloin steak that is seasoned with oil, salt and spices. "It is what you could cook yourself," Burnett said.
Panera's existing food distribution network, which it uses to deliver dough to bakery cafes, will be instrumental in helping the company deliver on this switch. While 45-day field-to-plate delivery cycles for produce might be the norm for other restaurant chains, Schaich said Panera should be able to shrink this down to five to seven days for items such as lettuce. For items like tomatoes, this makes it easier to eliminate gases or treatments traditionally used for artificial ripening, according to the company's food policy.
When it comes to animal proteins, Panera has moved far beyond its sourcing stance on poultry over the past 10 years: all of its chickens, pork and turkey items are purchased from farmers that raise the animals on vegetarian-based diets, without the use of antibiotics and in "reduced-stress" environments.
One issue that the new policy doesn't address is Panera's stance regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs). When asked for his perspective, given Panera's policy about disclosure via mobile apps and on café menu boards, Schaich's answer is succinct: "We would like to be responsive. It is clear that consumers are interested. We favor legislation that requires GMO labeling."
Top image of Panera sign by Mike Mozart via Flickr.