MenuMasters 2011: Scott Davis

MenuMasters 2011: Scott Davis

Panera exec named top innovator

While Panera Bread’s Scott Davis got his start on the culinary side of the business, he has moved far beyond that point in his
career, observers say.

Panera’s founder and executive chairman of the board Ron Shaich, for example, was emphatic when he said that
Davis’ contributions are far ranging.

“As much as any single person, he has been at the core of the success of Panera Bread,” Shaich said. “There is nothing in Panera that he hasn’t had his hands on, that hasn’t been influenced positively by Scott.”

Davis, Panera’s executive vice president and chief concept officer and recipient of the 2011 Nation’s Restaurant News MenuMasters Award in the Innovator category, said his role “has always been concept, which is really broader than food. But food still is the point of it. It is really about bringing the customer experience alive multidimensionally.”

Today that customer experience includes ingredients that are fresh, wholesome and often healthful, and flavors that range from comforting to cutting edge. Noteworthy menu additions on Davis’ résumé over the past decade-and-a-half include bagels, breakfast sandwiches, signature sandwiches and salads, panini, and antibiotic-free chicken.

Company: Panera Bread
Years in current position: one (named executive vice president and chief concept officer May 2010)
Years in industry: 31
Education: associate’s degree in applied sciences, State University of New York, Mohawk Valley
Residence: Syracuse, N.Y.
Career highlights: leading project to evolve Saint Louis Bread Company concept into Panera Bread; introducing bagels, panini, signature salads, breakfast sandwiches and Wi-Fi into Panera; working directly with Ron Shaich since 1993
Personal: wife, Kari; son, Kyle; daughter, Alaina
Hobbies: snowmobiling, boating, barbecue, Bruce Springsteen concerts
Favorite meal: Buffalo Chicken Wings at Daiker’s in Old Forge, N.Y., and “anything cooked by my team at my camp in the Adirondacks”

Davis was instrumental in helping to guide the St. Louis-based Panera to its current level of success, with nearly 1,500 locations. In fact, Shaich said Davis was key in creating the vision that transformed the Saint Louis Bread Company — Panera Bread’s predecessor — from “a lunch business rooted in bread” into a bakery-cafe that competes at breakfast and between meals.

Davis joined Au Bon Pain in 1987 as a store manager, and when the Boston-based chain acquired Saint Louis Bread in 1993, he helped spearhead its comprehensive restaging into today’s Panera Bread concept.

Since then Davis has continued to formulate and articulate Panera’s vision and strategic thrust as a fast-growing, hugely successful national entity.

“He was instrumental in adding the breakfast daypart and the gathering daypart, which was driven by the physicality of the store — how you felt when you were in the cafe,” Shaich said. “So it was not just any one element; it is the totality.

“Scott is a guy I have learned so much about life from, as well as having shared with him this wonderful birthing of a vision,” Shaich added. “He, more than anyone, was with me in creating the vision and then in making that vision happen. And along the way, he started as my student and then became my teacher.”

“Panera has really led the way in terms of bakery-cafe,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at research firm Technomic in Chicago. “They have done a tremendous job of bringing a fast-casual, morning-lunch concept to America’s suburbia, and more urban locations with a pretty effective catering program.

“What they have been able to do is to really leap past a lot of the concepts, like Einstein’s and others that have been traditionally strong in the breakfast daypart,” Tristano said. “It has allowed them to be a category giant when it comes to the bakery-cafe segment, as well as within fast casual.”

Having cut his teeth in the industry working for a Burger King franchisee, Davis learned to excel in the more complex culinary world of the fast-casual bakery-cafe.

“I was literally the food guy for about the first dozen years of Panera’s existence,” Davis said.

“Not having a culinary background meant I didn’t know what couldn’t be done,” said Davis, who holds an associate’s degree in computer science. “For example, people told me I couldn’t put Asiago cheese on a bagel. I said, ‘Why not?’ It became the biggest-selling bagel.” The same goes for fresh basil on a sandwich, another innovation that was once thought impractical.

“Scott is one of the smartest and greatest-thinking people you will ever run into,” Shaich said. “Because Scott doesn’t ask what other people think. Scott asks what makes sense in accomplishing the possibility of the future.”

Davis said, “I am still not a classically trained chef by any means, but I know how to speak the language and how to interface among operations and culinary and design, and to get everyone talking together and get things to work.”

He has led the Panera concept team since 1995, when ABP began to rework the Saint Louis Bread Company concept.

“It was giving quality, a certain self-esteem and an energy, and at the same time it wasn’t overly expensive, didn’t have waiters or waitresses, and the service time was still comparable to QSR,” Davis said. “That really was the first time anyone had pushed this all together.”

Baking and displaying artisan bread in the stores helped “decommodify” bread, as Davis put it, transforming it into a specialty product that complements salads and soups and provides a platform for signature sandwiches.

“For most people, bread had boiled down to what they could buy in the grocery store,” Davis said. “We thought we could bring bread alive in a different way that was more consistent with a European experience, but still with our own flair.”