Panera Bread tackles “clean” food – and means it

Panera BreadLast June, fast-casual restaurant chain Panera Bread announced that it would do away with the remaining artificial preservatives, flavors, sweeteners and colors from artificial sources in its Panera at Home products. The company expects to make its entire portfolio of nearly 50 grocery items “clean,” meaning free of its “No No List” additives, by the end of 2016.

"Cleaning" up its Panera at Home product line comes in addition Panera’s 2014 commitment  to remove the “No No list” ingredients from all restaurant food offerings within the same time frame and adhere to other criteria of its “Food Policy”.

Panera has consistently run far ahead of their competitors, and they’ve done it in five key areas where companies can lead on chemicals: institutional commitment, supply chain transparency, informing consumers, public commitment, and product design. Panera set such a good example of leadership in making safer food available to their customers that we’ve developed a case study to showcase Panera’s approach and results to date.

EDF worked with Sara Burnett, Panera’s director of wellness and food policy, to develop the case study, who offered many insights into their process. For example, on Panera’s decision to expand its commitment to include retail food, Burnett shared that, “Much of the work that we’ve done to simplify recipes in our bakery-cafes has set a standard for Panera at Home products. However, the challenges in the consumer packaged goods space are unique, where artificial additives have long been used to preserve taste and appearance. For us, the answer was often simple. For instance, we decided early on to use refrigeration to help extend shelf life for products like our soups and salad dressings. Where necessary, we’ve relied on natural preservatives – such as rosemary extract – to do the job.”

Panera started that process by looking at every ingredient used in their food and deciding what was essential. Once that determination was made, Panera identified more than 150 food additives to be prohibited in their food after 2016. Of approximately 450 ingredients they manage, roughly one-third needed reformulation.

Out of several hundred suppliers, only one walked away as a result of the new guidelines. In addition, the deep dive into Panera’s sources and potential replacement options also surfaced opportunities for improvement. As a result, many of the suppliers found that they not only strengthened their relationship with Panera, but developed better business offerings for their other customers.

While a limited number of categories still require change – sweets and fountain sodas among them – Panera has overcome many of its toughest challenges. For example, broccoli cheddar soup took 60 revisions to meet customer expectations in taste tests. Many items, from candy pieces to mozzarella cheese, are now differently colored from their predecessors but meet Panera’s clean criteria and customer preferences. Two products – pepperoncini and white pastry cream – have been unable to meet both Panera’s and customers’ expectations, and will likely be removed from the menu come 2017.

Sales numbers would indicate that customers are also pleased. In July 2016, Panera Chairman and CEO Ron Shaich said “Our strong Q2 results reinforce the fact that our strategy is working and our initiatives are performing. Panera is becoming a better competitive alternative with expanded runways for growth. At a time when other restaurant companies are feeling the impact of a slowing consumer environment, we are maintaining our momentum.”

Or as Burnett puts it, “When we meet customer needs and expectations, sales follow.”

Panera is not alone in their efforts, but they are definitely among the leaders. Since Panera announced its comprehensive food policy in June of 2014, more than a dozen major food manufacturers and restaurants have also made public commitments to reduce or eliminate artificial flavors and colors from their brands.

Learn more about how food companies can lead on safer chemicals management with our blueprint for safer food additives, part of EDF’s Behind the Label initiative.

Follow Michelle Harvey at @MMHarvey