Panera Is Latest to Cut Artificial Additives

Panera Is Latest to Cut Artificial Additives

When Panera Bread said last week that it would drop artificial additives from its menu, it joined a blitz of restaurants responding to customers’ desire for healthier food. Chipotle said recently that it would eliminate genetically modified ingredients, while McDonald’s pledged to use antibiotic-free chicken.

Their efforts reflect a new industry reality: Instead of counting calories, today’s diners are often focused more on eating unprocessed foods.

Panera says its “No No List” — a roster of flavors, sweeteners, colors and preservatives that it will eliminate from its menu by 2016 — is a crucial step to staying relevant. But it wasn’t easy to pull off.

To understand how complex these kinds of supply-chain overhauls are, it’s useful to break down Panera’s journey to reformulate just one of its menu items: Greek salad dressing.

The process began with figuring out what was in the dressing. Panera had to get to the bottom of where the ingredients came from, how they were processed and whether they were all necessary. That meant connecting with vendors — and in some cases, a complex web of sub-vendors.

“Oftentimes, it means going back one, two, three levels of supply chain and really questioning it,” said Sara Burnett, Panera’s senior quality-assurance manager.

That process alone took about two months, she said.

In the end, Panera determined that there were two artificial flavors, including hydrolyzed soy protein, that it wanted to eliminate. It also wanted to get rid of two emulsifiers — maltodextrin and propylene glycol alginate — that help bind the dressing together.

Then, members of Panera’s culinary, nutrition, sourcing and quality-assurance teams began looking for alternative ingredients that wouldn’t compromise the dressing’s taste.

“It isn’t as simple as saying, ‘Take out Ingredient A and put in Ingredient B.’ I can’t just take out one emulsifier and put in another one,” Burnett said. “We basically rebuild that product. A lot of times it’s really throwing out what we have and starting over again.”

Reinventing the recipe took an additional four months.

Once the team had an alternative it was comfortable with, testing began at a small number of restaurants. The testing phase took six months, and it included tweaking the recipe as the team received customer feedback.

The new recipe consists largely of lemon juice, garlic, rosemary, oregano and black pepper — ingredients Panera hopes customers will recognize as the kind of food they’d have in their home pantries.

Add it all up, and it took Panera a year just to get the additives out of its Greek salad dressing. Burnett said three employees spent “a significant amount of time” on reworking the recipe.

Now, consider that Panera is reformulating more than 160 of the 465 ingredients used in its food. Items including croutons, tortilla strips and bacon are to be revamped by 2016.

It was a massive undertaking and serves as a powerful illustration of the challenges the restaurant industry faces as it tries to adapt to consumers’ desire for local, fresh food, a process that will require revamping the complicated supply chains that took decades to build.

It helps that Panera already makes daily deliveries of fresh produce and dough to its restaurants, so it can use that distribution network to get preservative-free (read: more perishable) foods to its outposts. But for larger competitors who don’t have similar networks, such a change could be even trickier.

Panera said it’s too early to know how much these efforts will cost.

“It has some cost implication,” chief executive Ron Shaich said. “We expect we can do this without raising prices to speak of, and we think we can do it without any real margin impact. But we’ll find out.”

Author: Sarah Halzack The Washington Post

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