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Panera to amplify its plant-based offerings

The fast-casual chain plans to add a new meat-free item in every menu category by the end of next year.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Panera Bread is in the midst of a large-scale revamp of its menu, with plans to introduce a new, plant-based item in every category by the end of next year.

“Our aspiration long-term is that our menu looks more like 50% plant-based when we look at entrees,” Sara Burnett, Panera’s vice president of wellness and food policy, told Restaurant Business. Currently, about a quarter of Panera’s center-of-the-plate menu items are meat-free, Burnett said, and about 60% of the menu can be made plant-based with one customization.

In September, the fast-casual chain introduced a new menu category of grain bowls, which sold more than 5 million units in its first couple of months, she said.

“Grain bowls are an amazing platform for growing plant-based options,” she said.

The grain bowls will provide a blueprint of sorts as Panera continues to add plant-based menu items, an example of the chain’s focus on customizable, whole foods, instead of the meat analogues that are growing in popularity at many chains.

“Some of the industry is going the faux-meat route,” Burnett said. “We never say never. Today, when we look at the faux-meat landscape, it’s really exciting. It’s a great transition for consumers. One hundred percent, we are in support of it. At Panera, we can move one step beyond that.”

Panera already has about 250 ingredients in its pantry, but it is open to adding foods such as nuts, seeds and legumes as the new menu items dictate, she said.

There will likely be items removed from the menu to make way for new offerings, she said, but it is too early in the process to know what might be cut. Some plant-based items are being tested at Panera’s innovation kitchens, but nothing has been rolled out to consumers yet.

“The broader trend is a shift in diet culture,” Burnett said. “A shift away from diet culture of restriction and shame and guilt and a shift into the idea of wellness and, ‘How do I add to my diet? How do I eat more leafy greens? How do I do better each day?’ … What we want to see for our future is this idea of food positivity. How do we add the good back to food?”

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