The R&D for Panera’s Flatbread Pizzas actually started two years ago, and the new items were ready to roll out last fall. But it took another year until their launch on Oct. 28, with a pandemic and changing eating styles spurring some tweaks.
The flatbreads’ journey began as part of a broader dinner daypart test in summer through fall of 2019, says Claes Petersson, Chief Food and Innovation Officer for Panera Bread. Although they tested well with consumers, “with off-premise business growing, I knew we had to have a product that would travel well,” Petersson says. A reformulation was necessary.
Petersson focused on reworking the dough to make it thicker so it would stand up to off-premise travel and reheating. “I increased the dough weight from 110 grams to 165 grams and when baked, the flatbread is crispy on the edges and softer in the middle,” he explains. He also starts with extra-fine flour, which makes the dough lighter and crisper.
Baking and reheating also required new testing. Panera is known for the quality of its bread, says Petersson, and to support that reputation, the ovens at all locations have been outfitted with stones for speedier and more precise baking. The Flatbread Pizzas bake up in 1½ minutes and better retain the heat. That means they can be packed up to go and will remain hot and tasty for 25 minutes, says Petersson.
Consumers can also reheat them at home with no loss in quality—a step the chef tried with his wife and three children as taste testers. “Some of us preferred the crispy outside pieces, while others liked the softer interior,” he says.
Panera had previously introduced flatbread pizzas called Crispini, but ultimately took them off the menu. “The Crispini had a thin crust and would not have stood up to off-premise,” says Petersson. “They would have dried out in travel.”
The new Flatbread Pizzas are also quicker to execute. The dough is prepped at a central facility and sent to each Panera location for baking. The Crispini took 12 minutes to bake vs. 1½ minutes for the new product.
The dough was perfected in late July of this year—the only new SKU for the flatbreads—and R&D on the toppings had been ongoing. All the topping ingredients were already in house and Petersson was able to cross-utilize them from other menu items, speeding up this step.
“For the three flatbreads in the launch, we chose an assortment that works for the whole family,” says Petersson. The Cheese version is topped with Panera’s signature tomato-based Market Sauce and generously sprinkled with a shredded mozzarella-fontina blend. The Margherita gets the same cheese blend with the addition of cherry tomatoes and fresh basil, along with extra chunks of mozzarella cheese.
The ingredients for the Chipotle Chicken & Bacon flatbread are borrowed from the sandwich side of Panera’s menu, and include smoked, pulled chicken, chipotle aioli, cilantro and bacon. Prices for the Flatbread Pizzas start at $7.99.
Petersson operated a successful farm-to-table restaurant in his native Sweden for 25 years, and that legacy infuses his menu development at Panera. “When I ate a Panera Bread for the first time, it reminded me of my restaurant,” he says. When Panera recruited Petersson to head the kitchen, he felt his mission to cook fresh, clean food with quality ingredients aligned perfectly with theirs.
Along with his culinary heritage, Petersson is experienced on the corporate side. He ran innovation for Godiva chocolate and worked as corporate chef for Sonic Drive-Ins, growing both businesses, he says.
The Flatbread Pizzas are more than a new product for Panera—they comprise a whole new menu category that aims to grow the chain’s dinner business. They are being marketed as an add-on; a shareable item to enjoy with Panera’s core selection of salads and soups.
Going into 2021, Petersson is looking at adding more seasonal ingredients as pizza toppings. “I will be listening to Mother Nature in the future and follow seasonality, just like I did in my restaurant in Sweden,” he says. “A seasonal approach builds trust with customers and interest and credibility among younger consumers.”