Panera Bread appears to be relaxing ingredient standards, says report

With a major menu overhaul coming next month, the fast-casual chain may also be easing off on its commitment to responsibly raised meat.
Panera Bread is planning an overhaul of its menu that may involve a shift in ingredients and baking procedures. | Photo: Shutterstock.

With a menu overhaul announced last week, Panera Bread now appears to be relaxing its commitment to some ingredient standards, according to a report from Reuters on Wednesday.

It’s the latest in a string of news drawing negative attention to the fast-casual brand, which is the key player in the larger Panera Brands that is preparing for a potential initial public offering.

Reuters reported that Panera stores across the U.S. have been directed to remove signs and artwork promoting the brand’s commitment to meat raised without antibiotics, or that is vegetarian fed or grass fed, as well as any mention of “animal welfare” or “hormones.”

That positioning was a key aspect of a transparency campaign that started in 2014 with a pledge to move to clean and simple ingredients over the next few years. On its website, Panera still touts its “No No List,” including roughly 70 prohibited additives, from certain artificial colors and flavors, to high-fructose corn syrup and artificial trans fats.

The Reuters report cited internal documents indicating an easing of standards could save the chain an estimated $21 million annually by not limiting supply to beef that is only pasture raised, for example, or allowing the use of some antibiotics in pork and turkey products, or meat from animals raised on feed that may not be vegetarian.

Company officials did not respond to questions about the report.

Last week, Panera unveiled plans for a major menu overhaul in April, a move designed to streamline and simplify operations.

Nine new dishes will be added and 12 classic recipes have been updated. And, as is typical with menu work, the chain also plans to remove dishes and entire categories from the menu, including the flatbreads.

Company officials did not specify what else would be cut, but Reddit posts by workers at the chain indicate that the menu could be cut by 19%, with products like the Melt Sandwiches, souffles, Baja and Mediterranean bowls to be eliminated—even a simple buttered croissant.

Other conversations on Reddit also indicate a shift in recent years to using more par-baked and frozen bread and pastries to further simplify operations, reducing the hours of bakers in restaurants. Panera units have long been supplied by regional dough manufacturing facilities, but the posts describe a “Bakery of the Future” test in which bread and other products just require reheating, rather than proofing and baking on site.

It's not clear whether such a move is being considered and the company did not respond to requests for more information.

How Panera produces its bread has also become a political football—at least on the West Coast.

The legislation in California that will increase the minimum wage for fast-food workers to $20 an hour in April—known as AB 1228—includes an exemption for establishments that produce bread as a stand-alone menu item.

That carve out has raised allegations that Panera franchisee Greg Flynn sought the exemption, and that Gov. Gavin Newsom allowed it because Flynn’s company had made donations to the governor’s re-election campaign and contributed in an earlier effort by Republicans to recall the governor.

Flynn, one of the nation’s largest franchisees with multiple brands, only operates 24 Panera units in California, of about 188 across the state.

With state Republicans attempting to fan the flames of conspiracy by asking the state attorney general to investigate, the controversy has been dubbed “Panera Gate.”

Newsom, however, called the issue “absurd” and has reportedly denied that he ever met with Flynn about the exemption, saying the carve out was the result of negotiations in Sacramento involving all parties. A spokesperson for the governor also indicated that Panera would not have been exempt from the law because bread is made off site.

Meanwhile, Flynn reportedly said he plans to increase pay for workers in California in line with AB 1228, whether or not Panera is considered exempt. He also noted that any exemption would likely be of little value, given his restaurants would be forced to compete with fast-food brands offering higher pay.

Flynn declined to comment further.

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