Panera Bread

At Menus of Change, chefs, C-suite execs, nutritionists, and health policy experts alike preached a mission to imbue the foodservice industry with healthier menu options. But as compelling as these appeals were, most begged the simple question of how.

Consumers and operators worried that they would have to sacrifice taste and satisfying portions to eat well, said Pam Smith, a culinary nutritionist and foodservice consultant who works with Darden Restaurants and Disney Parks and Resorts.

“No matter what it’s always about the flavor,” Smith said during a special breakout session featuring the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative and Panera Bread. “We really do believe in employing that stealth health approach.”

Beyond flavor and “craveability,” the costs associated with more premium ingredients can also be a deterrent for any restaurateur watching the bottom line.

Dan Kish, senior vice president of food at Panera and former dean at the CIA, walked through how the fast casual is putting a nutritional emphasis on its new broth bowls. The tale of menu innovation and finding the balance among taste, health, and cost was one that operators at all level of dining service could relate to and learn from.  

“What I credit Ron [Shaich] with the most is having an ear to listen … and change and still look at it through a business lens,” Kish says, noting that Panera’s evolution as a company has often echoed its CEO-founder’s own personal journey to eat better.

It was a rainy day in Portland, Oregon, in early 2014 when the idea for a healthy entrée soup was first floated among the Panera team, Kish said. For years, the company viewed soup as an indulgent accompaniment to a salad or sandwich, but its menu innovators realized that soup could also stand alone as a nutrient-dense, satiating offering.

These bowls are half broth and half vegetables and whole grains like quinoa. Kish explained that Panera was able to cut sodium and additive flavors by leaning on the umami—or savory flavor—of ingredients like srirachi, miso, and soy sauce.

During the session, one audience member pointed out that despite these measures, the sodium content for the broth bowls was still quite high. (At press time, Panera’s website listed it as 1,290–1,370 milligrams.) Kish responded that while most customers are not particularly vigilant about sodium content, those who are could order half the broth amount to cut it. He added that Panera is working on customer-friendly guidelines to make such recommendations easier and more accessible.

“There are a lot of eating styles that have emerged, and we want to help the average customer,” Kish said.

Kish added that a broth bowl is essentially a “warm salad,” and customers who regularly consume Panera salads are also embracing its bowls.

The brand has more ideas coming down the pipeline, including dishes with ancient grains and world spices, and it also plans to retire a few underperforming legacy products in September.

While Kish said he expects a vocal minority “will kill us on Facebook for a while,” Panera must constantly walk a tightrope between healthy innovating and staying true to its roots and loyal customer base.

“If you’re going to clean up the broccoli cheddar [soup]—our best-selling soup—you’d damn well better keep the taste the same,” Kesh said. “That’s a real delicate balance.”


By Nicole Duncan


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