Panera Bread debuts new menu category fit for pandemic dining

The fast-casual chain launched three flatbread pizzas, with plans to add new versions next year.
Photo courtesy of Panera

Flatbread pizzas, which launched Wednesday at Panera Bread, have been in the works at the chain for two years.

But the new menu category got some pandemic-minded tinkering in recent months before they made their debut, Panera Head Chef Claes Petersson said.

Once coronavirus shifted most of the chain’s business to delivery and takeout, Panera made its flatbread dough thicker and added more cheese so the product would travel better, Petersson said.

“We wanted to expand into new categories,” he said. “We have been focused a lot on soups and salads and bowls, of course. We felt like we wanted to build on something more hearty for the family.”

The shareable flatbreads, which are cut into six pieces, come in three flavors: Cheese, Margherita and Chipotle Chicken & Bacon. All are cooked on pizza stones, which were already present in Panera’s kitchens.

Tests of the flatbread showed the item’s popularity, Sara Burnett, Panera’s vice president of Wellness, Food Policy and Public Affairs, said.

“Trial leads to repeat orders,” Burnett said. “It’s a highly repeated product.”

The chain is hoping the flatbreads, priced at $7.99 to $8.99, will be treated as an order add-on by many customers, rather than simply a new entree option. Flatbreads also represent a way for customers to think of Panera as a dinner choice, the company said.

“We’re seeing a mixed check,” Burnett said. “It’s a very shareable product. It’s about complementing that soup, salad or sandwich. We’re seeing folks be able to consider us for more occasions.”

Panera will market the new product through traditional ads, social media and social influencer partnerships, Burnett said.

At a time when most restaurants are seeking to reduce operational complexity in the back of house, adding a new menu category may seem to go against the grain. But Petersson said the flatbread dough is the only new ingredient needed for the pizzas.

“We have all the other ingredients,” he said. “We have the best pantry. We took what we already had and made separate pizzas out of it.”

That means the flatbreads are a likely canvas for seasonal innovation and other riffs.

“I can’t tell you all about it yet,” he said. “But, of course, we’re working on future new family members for the flatbread. I can see this grow.”

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