Panera Bread is planning to add more grains and plant-based foods to its menu

Key Points
  • Panera Bread will be adding more grain and plant-based options and high-quality lean-cut meats to its menu, CEO Niren Chaudhary told CNBC on Thursday.
  • The chain's grain bowl launch was its most successful menu introduction in the last three or four years, Chaudhary said.
  • Plant-based options will focus on whole foods derived from plants, rather than imitation meats from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
People walk by a Panera Bread restaurant in in New York.
Kena Betancur | AFP | Getty Images

Like many consumers heading into the new year, Panera Bread is making a resolution to be even healthier.

Panera has long committed to serving "100% clean" food, meaning that it contains no artificial ingredients or additives. But now the sandwich chain wants to go further than that, as health-conscious consumers flock to fast-casual rivals like Sweetgreen and CAVA.

"In the coming years, we want to have more grain options for our consumers, more plant-based options for our consumers and more high-quality lean-cut meats," CEO Niren Chaudhary said in an interview Thursday.

2019 was a busy year for Panera. The chain expanded its breakfast offerings, began testing a dinner menu, partnered with third-party delivery services and launched grain bowls. Chaudhary, who became chief executive six months ago, called the grain bowl launch Panera's most successful in the last three or four years.

"In the first two, three months, we've sold over 5 million grain bowls," he said.

Since 2017, Panera has been privately held by JAB Holdings, which also owns Krispy Kreme and Pret A Manger. As a result, the company no longer discloses its financial results.

In addition to grains, Panera executives also see a big opportunity in expanding its plant-based options.

"Plant-based" is the buzzword used to describe a diet that incorporates less meat and more foods derived from plants. In the near term, Panera is going to try to increase its plant-based options from 25% of its menu to 50%. In 2021, consumers can expect new plant-based products from the sandwich chain in every category, Chaudhary said.

Rather than serving meat alternatives from Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods, Panera will be serving plant-based whole foods, such as quinoa and edamame. A February survey by market research firm Mintel found that 61% of consumers believe that whole plant foods, such as beans, are healthier than processed meat substitutes, such as the Impossible Burger.

"We are going after plant-based maybe a little bit differently than the industry is going after," said Sara Burnett, vice president of wellness and food policy, although "faux meats are a long-term trend and they're definitely a great solution for our guests or for some guests at different restaurants, as a transition product."

The change in its menu strategy comes as the food positivity movement gains steam. Panera executives said that consumers are approaching their diets with balance in mind, instead of cutting out ingredients and following strict diets.

Fast-casual competitors such as Chipotle Mexican Grill, Just Salad and El Pollo Loco have released bowls and salads targeted at customers looking to stick to trendy diets.

"You look at a lot of other concepts, and they're going to have a paleo, a keto, [or other] diet curated path," Burnett said.

"At Panera, we have a plant-based, a nutrient-rich and a protein-rich [menu. It's about what you add to your diet," Burnett said.

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