Lessons from Panera's head chef

by Monica Watrous
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Panera Green Goddess Cobb Salad
Panera's new Green Goddess Cobb Salad features a green goddess dressing made in-house.
CHICAGO — Earlier this month, Panera Bread Co. began serving salads with a green goddess dressing made in-house. For a bakery-cafe chain with more than 2,000 units, this was a big deal.
Dan Kish, Panera
Dan Kish, head chef and senior vice-president of food at Panera

“Being a big company, you have someone else make your salad dressings for you because that’s what big companies do, and they do it really efficiently and the specs are right on, and, man, is it cheap,” said Dan Kish, head chef and senior vice-president of food at the St. Louis-based bakery-cafe company. “But two weeks ago, we started making our green goddess dressing in-house because I said, ‘If you can make a smoothie, you can make a dressing.’ It’s not as easy as it sounds, of course, but we have a pantry of ingredients that are wholesome and clean.”

Decisions like these, Mr. Kish said, defy what it means to be big in the restaurant business.

“We have to not think like big restaurant thinking, but we have to be cooks, we have to be chefs, we have to be in the food business and not be in the managing-a-publicly-traded company business.”

Mr. Kish discussed Panera Bread’s disruptive strategies during a panel presentation at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, held May 21-24 in Chicago. About a year ago, the chain published its No No List of ingredients that will not be used to formulate its products, including colors, flavors, preservatives and sweeteners from artificial sources. The company committed to removing these ingredients from its menu items by the end of 2016.

Panera No-No List
About a year ago, Panera published its No No List of ingredients that will not be used to formulate its products.
“Our customers didn’t have a problem with our dressing,” he said. “They didn’t even have a problem with artificial preservatives, necessarily… but we think the future is in eating better, and if I had to hitch my wagon to anything, I would want to be making better food and not mediocre food. I would want to make it accessible because this notion of accessibility, affordability and convenience (in fast-food), none of that has changed.”

Though the decision to convert Panera’s entire menu to simple ingredients initially “dropped a lot of jaws inside the company,” he said, the initiative fit within the brand’s core values.

“We didn’t have to change who we are,” Mr. Kish said. “All we had to do was just think a little more deeply about what that means in today’s terms and for today’s customer and today’s economics, and the answer sort of popped up. So this notion of knowing who you are and staying true to that is really the key.”

One particular challenge of Panera’s clean label initiative was reformulating the broccoli cheddar soup, a longstanding menu item with a popular following. That recipe was revised 60 times, according to the company.

Panera Broccoli Cheddar soup in bread bowl
While reformulating its popular broccoli cheddar soup, Panera revised the new recipe 60 times.
“To say we are going to remove all of these artificial things from a legacy product and we’re not going to change (the taste)… it was monumental, and it took a lot of trial and error, but you can’t be clean and have things that are not,” Mr. Kish said. “Clean is not negotiable. It either is, or it isn’t and it’s coming off the menu. And I didn’t want to have to sit through the conversation of whether to take broccoli cheddar soup off the menu. There’s a customer that loves it, they expect it, and we expect ourselves to evolve.”

Through the process, he added, Panera’s food safety standards have remained as stringent as ever. “Because, trust me, unsafe clean food can be a really bad thing for everyone.”

The opposite of disruption is complacency, he said.

“You can get lulled very easily into a false sense of security when you’re growing and you’re big and Wall Street loves you,” Mr. Kish said. “To say we’re going to be big and good at it and good for you, that is a disruptive notion in and of itself because there are a lot of decisions that are easy to make the quarter that prevent you from doing the right thing long term.” 
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