Panera decides its DNA is really soups, sandwiches and salads

The bakery-cafe chain is rolling out a new menu that plays up core menu lines rather than searching for a new breakthrough menu category.
Panera mac and cheese
Panera served up samples of its new bacon mac and cheese at a menu unveiling Wednesday. | Photo by Peter Romeo

Expect sandwiches, salads and soups to take up more of Panera Bread’s menu going forward, a result of those products now largely defining the bakery-cafe concept in patrons’ minds, executives stressed while showcasing a new menu Wednesday.

With considerable fanfare, they lifted the napkin off a new bill of fare that is shorter and more intensely focused on those three product lines, with mac and cheese treated as a subcategory of soups. The chain officials hailed the makeover as the most sweeping in Panera’s 37-year history, the result of an intense 18 months of speaking with customers, brainstorming new products and preparing for the rollout, which begins April 4.

They termed it a new era for Panera, a concept that has focused on such far-afield menu options in the past as pizza.

Indeed, the brand’s last major menu-focused press event was the introduction of a flatbread line. That array is gone.

Also not on the new menu were indications that any product was free of hormones, antibiotics, preservatives or  additives. Yet the cutback in the number of listed items has provided more room for descriptions on menu boards of each item offered, the representatives noted, citing that as a significant benefit of the downscaling.

Asked point-blank if the omission of purity boasts signaled a retreat from the chain’s longtime aversion to additives, preservatives or any unnatural ingredients, officials insisted the signature policy remains in place. Their stance contradicted recent assertions in news reports and social media that the chain is cutting its food costs by using meats from animals that may have been treated with antibiotics.

Panera's new menu

The chain’s new menu boards will sport more salads. | Photo by Peter Romeo

The new menu was revealed and sampled as executives are already working on a revamp of the chain’s breakfast and morning beverage lineups, one executive revealed. Alcoholic beverages will not be added by the chain as part of the makeover, she said.

Officials acknowledged that Panera has shortened its roster of lunch and dinner options, but did not say by how much.

All told, nine items were added and 13 were revamped. Four of the additions are sandwiches, four are salads and one was a riff on Panera’s popular mac and cheese, a version that features ample amounts of mixed-in applewood-smoked bacon.

The line extensions that seemed most different from what’s already on the menu were the Ciabatta Cheesesteak and the Toasted Italiano.

The former featured chopped steak mixed with Peppadew peppers and served on ciabatta. The peppers gave the sandwich a slightly sweet and briny taste.

The toasted Italiano was a sub of Black Forest ham, soppressata, provolone and garnishes, all served on a French baguette.

The new salad that seemed the most different was a Mediterranean mix of hummus, feta cheese, Peppadew peppers, Greek dressing and what Panera is calling shawarma seasoning.

No mention was made during the event of Charged Lemonade, the highly caffeinated cold drink that figures into three lawsuits alleging the beverage triggered the deaths of two patrons.

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