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Panera’s next move: ancient grains

Panera Bread Company plans to introduce at least one ancient-grain dish this fall as a follow-up to the broth and quinoa menu lines it added in January.

The bakery-cafe concept is also experimenting with alternate uses of kale, such as featuring it in caramelized form as a sandwich garnish, and will begin an experiment starting tomorrow with a carbonated soft drink that contains no artificial flavorings or high-fructose corn syrup.

The initiatives are part of the chain’s Food as it Should Be initiative, which aims to provide “cleaner” foods devoid of additives and hidden ingredients.

The ancient-grains item will feature such ingredients as organic farro, black barley, pumpkin seeds and sliced grapes, Dan Kish, Panera’s SVP of food, revealed at the Menus of Change conference today at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.  He described it as a continuation late in the winter of the broth-bowl line, which features quinoa as a key ingredient. Quinoa is also served in several other items, including a salad.

The rollout of the premium items has increased Panera’s traffic, return rate and check average, Kish noted.

The broth bowls also include ingredients such as eggs from hens grown in cage-free environments, which carry a premium cost, and what he called the “flavor bomb” secret ingredient, a roasted tomato sofrito, a Spanish relish. He characterized the sofrito as a way of delivering the taste of a fresh tomato year-round.

“In the beginning it was tough because you had to bring in all these new things,” he said. “But in the end it wasn’t because you brought in all these things that open the door to all these new things.”

Panera is exploring other ways of using the ingredients it started stocking to provide the broth bowls. Hence the experiment with caramelized kale.

The introduction of ancient grains won’t come without adjustments, either, Kish said. To make room on the menu, some “legacy” options will be deleted, he explained, citing a panini sandwich in particular without revealing exactly which one.

“There is a very local minority that will kill us on Facebook for awhile,” he said, “but we had to make room.”

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