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Panera looks to add a new menu category

The bakery-cafe chain is launching a new line with the addition of warm grain bowls.
Photograph courtesy of Panera

Panera Bread has started the buildout of a new menu category with the chainwide addition of the bakery-cafe concept’s first two grain-based bowl meals.

Both of the new selections—the Mediterranean Grain Bowl, featuring hummus and feta cheese, and the spicier Mexican-inspired Baja Grain Bowl, with housemade salsa verde—move the concept beyond its reliance at lunch and dinner on sandwiches, salads and soups. Executives stress that the additions are just the first in what will likely be a stream of bowl meals. Two others, a chicken pesto dish and a teriyaki chicken selection, are already in test.

The four new ingredients needed for the bowls could also be springboards for additional menu items, the chain officials said.  

The bowls, both of which are served hot, address a number of the trends that are seemingly top of mind for restaurateurs and consumers. They’re both available with or without chicken, a nod to the growing preference for plant-forward dishes, and incorporate timely ingredients such as Greek yogurt and quinoa.

All of the ingredients are consistent with Panera’s policy of using only “clean ingredients,” or components that aren’t adulterated with additives or supplements. “Our philosophy is to provide food that’s good and good for you,” said Dan Wegiel, Panera’s chief growth and strategy officer.

Their prices fall at the higher end of Panera’s spectrum. Without chicken, both carry a price of around $9.19, with the exact amount varying by market. With chicken, the price is bumped up to around $9.89.

Panera worked on the development of the bowls for about two years, according to Wegiel. Consistent with the chain’s emphasis on delivery, the new items were formulated with the need to travel well, and special packaging was developed for outgoing orders, Wegiel said. He also noted that the bowls can be included in catering orders.

He declined to reveal what level of sales the bowls generated in tests, but added, “We wouldn’t be launching them if they weren’t very good for us, and it is incremental business.”

Wegiel added that Panera sees an opportunity to become the nationwide leader in the sale of bowls. Although young chains such as Dig and Sweetgreen may offer meals in that format, they lack the scale of Panera, which has 2,300 locations.

Two other bowls—the chicken teriyaki and the chicken pesto—are being tested in a limited trial of new dinner selections. The two that were rolled out are intended to boost business both at lunch and dinner, Wegiel said. In tests, “sales followed our mix” in terms of lunch versus dinner and on-premise versus delivery and takeout, he said.

“There is much more to this than these first two bowls,” Wegiel emphasized. He said grain bowls will become Panera’s fourth menu category. “You’ll see us start to talk more about them down the line. They’re part of our emphasis on grains, plants and proteins.”

The Mediterranean bowl features hummus, cilantro-lime long-grain brown rice, red and gold quinoa, a bed of fresh arugula, grilled citrus-pepper chicken, red grape tomatoes, kalamata olives, diced cucumbers, lemon tahini dressing, feta crumbles, Greek yogurt and a squeeze of lemon.  

The Baja version consists of the brown rice, quinoa, grilled citrus-pepper chicken, black bean and corn salsa, salsa verde, red grape tomatoes, fresh avocado, feta crumbles and Greek yogurt.

Each is offered with a choice of fresh-baked bread or an apple.

The hummus, salsa verde, long-grain brown rice and lemon tahini dressing had to be added to Panera’s pantries for the bowls, said Sara Burnett, Panera’s VP of wellness and food policy. She mentioned that the chain’s 400-item pantry proved a benefit, since few additional ingredients needed to be spec’d for the launch. Panera, like many of its chain competitors, has been striving to simplify recipes and kitchen operations.

“We dropped a couple of items” to make room for the bowls, Wegiel said.

In early tests, Panera tried cooking the rice on-premise, but the operational complications were a spoiler. Yet it decided to prepare the salsa verde fresh daily in the units.

Neither Burnett nor Wegiel would say what bowl might be rolled out next, but Wegiel indicated the two new ones will remain in the spotlight at least through December.

Panera is owned by JAB Holding Co., which is also the parent of Au Bon Pain and a number of chains specializing in coffee and baked goods. The bakery-cafe concept’s annual systemwide sales are estimated to be nearly $6 billion.

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