Clean labels, complex flavors in Panera’s pipeline

by Monica Watrous
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On tap at Panera Bread: Indian naan-style flatbread sandwiches in Southwestern chicken, Mediterranean chicken and Thai chicken varieties.

 

ST. LOUIS — Complex salads, craft soups and flatbread sandwiches headline forthcoming launches from Panera Bread Co. Scott Davis, executive vice-president and chief concept and innovation officer, discussed the innovation at the company’s investor day on March 25.

Representing the bakery-cafe’s first bread addition to its sandwich lineup in several years, an Indian naan-style flatbread is set to debut in May.

“We were in a process of thinking about different sandwiches about a year or two ago, and we realized we needed something that felt a little lighter with the breads, in a bread sense,” Mr. Davis said. “These are sandwiches specifically designed for the changing tastes of how our consumers are trying to eat. They are trying to eat lighter. They are trying to eat more international flavor. Less protein-heavy.”

Panera’s new flatbread sandwiches won’t resemble the typical fast-food wraps, he added.

“These aren’t kind of a flatbread and a piece of chicken stuffed in the middle with some mayonnaise,” he said. “It’s not just a bread choice. It’s rethinking the sandwich from the ground up, in terms of how much protein we put on it, how the vegetables matter. Using things like the bean pastes and the hummus versus sort of oils and heavier dressings.”

To make the flatbreads, Panera bakers roll the dough with a docking wheel to prevent pockets of air from forming so the bread remains soft and pliable.

“You know, with a lot of pita bread you get, it just kind of cracks in your hand?” Mr. Davis said. “By design, we wanted this to be flexible because the kind of sandwiches we were going to create with it were almost more like a taco at some level. We wanted to be able to fold it up and not have it fall apart on you.”

Made with 20% whole wheat flour and Greek yogurt, the flatbreads will be used in sandwiches prepared on the chain’s grills. Varieties include Southwestern chicken, Mediterranean chicken and Thai chicken.

“What you’re going to taste here is the interplay between the yogurt, the flour, the water, the yeast and the salt,” Mr. Davis said. “That’s really all there is in this. And when this griddles up, it creates this wonderful texture, this crispiness to it, and a different sort of dynamic for a sandwich.”

A heartier position in soups

Soup will begin to shine on Panera’s menu in coming months.

“What you are going to see is us taking a much stronger position on soup over the next year or so, and getting it more center of the plate,” Mr. Davis said. “Not just simply a nice add-on to a You-Pick-Two, but ultimately, we see a lot of variation in how soup can perform for us.”

Accounting for nearly 20% of Panera’s product mix year-round, the platform aligns with trends of lighter fare and global flavors, he said. Expect to see more launches along the lines of last year’s squash soup and turkey chili, he added.

“So, you’re going to see us focusing more on soup, the way we create it — because we can really do soup at scale with a craft style, the way we work with our partners in the supply chain,” Mr. Davis said. “So we are really excited about what soup looks like for us as we go forward and making that a much bigger part of our menu, ultimately.”

Complex salads with simple dressings of olive oil, salt and pepper are designed to appeal to millennial tastes.

Shaking up salads

Consumers are seeking more complexity from quick-service salads, Mr. Davis noted.

“They are looking for more complex proteins in their offerings, not just sort of lettuce with some meat on top and some dressing,” he said.

“They are looking for hummus. They are looking for legumes. They are looking for different vegetables. You are going to see us continue to build more complex, interesting salads for our customers that are easy to execute for our crew.”

Nutrition drives innovation behind Panera’s salad program, which has proved profitable for the chain over the past three or four years, he said. With an eye to simple-label trends, Panera also is planning changes for its dressings.

“We are trying to clean up the salad dressing business, using more olive oil, just kind of straight olive oil, salt-and-pepper sort of approach, as well,” Mr. Davis said. “So you can expect to see us continue to drive the salad program, and again focusing on where those millennial customers are looking and what they are looking to eat.”

Bread is not dead

With a greater focus on soups and salads, however, Panera is not abandoning its roots in bread, despite negative attention surrounding the category in recent years.

“Between Atkins and gluten-free and everything else, it just seems like there’s just always this pressure on bread,” Mr. Davis said. “You are going to see us continue to be champions of bread. We are not walking away from it. We are not going to try to pretend it doesn’t exist. We are going to take it on.”

In that spirit, Panera is introducing a sprouted-grain bagel flat later this year.

“It’s the first of our kind of sprouted-grain breads,” Mr. Davis said. “You will also see us roll out a roll … later this year, early next year, as a side choice accompaniment. You are going to see us take a much stronger position around bread that can be good for you, that tastes phenomenal, and that we can execute with class and quality, ultimately.”
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