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Q&A: Thomas John of Au Bon Pain

Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H., president and founder of Healthy Dining, a nutrition-related marketing and consulting firm, interviews Thomas John, executive chef of the more than 200-unit Au Bon Pain. The fast-casual chain was among the first restaurant concepts to disclose nutrition data ahead of menu-labeling laws and to offer more healthful options to guests, from whole-grain bread to small plates.

The interview has been edited for length, and the full story can be seen at Healthy Dining’s Restaurant Nutrition News & Insights.

Tell us about how you started moving forward with health and nutrition.

I’d say our commitment to wellness was implemented in a strategic way in the early 2000s. We also made a commitment to share nutrition information with our guests. In 2002, we were one of the first companies to place nutrition kiosks in all of our locations. Since then, we have added whole-grain breads, healthier options, smaller plates and portions, and as of last year, we have posted calories on our menus in every location. We are also committed to working on reducing sodium in as many items as possible.

Why did you move forward early on in such a dedicated way? For example, why did you declare calories on your menus, when it is not yet required nationwide?

I’d say there are two main reasons. First, for our customers. Our customers really love having the calories on the menus. It makes it so much easier for them. We get a lot of feedback from our customers. We also conduct focus groups. We have found that health and nutrition are important to our guests. People really care about what they put into their bodies. And the second reason is that Au Bon Pain does want to be in the forefront. That is important to us, just like it is to our customers.

You mentioned smaller portions. Tell us about those.

We offer items called Portions, which all contain less than 200 calories, and so they appeal to our guests who are watching calories, and they also are a great midday snack. The Portions are a selection of cheeses, fruits and crackers and hummus and cucumber. We also offer a whole line of healthy snacks, which range from chocolate-covered strawberries to mixed nuts to fresh fruit such as grapes, pineapple, watermelon and fruit cups. Our customers order the snacks as accompaniments to their meals or for dessert, and also as snacks on the go. We have smaller portions of pastries, too, which can be enjoyed without guilt.

What about reducing sodium? Tell us how this process is similar to and different from the elimination of trans fats.

Sodium is definitely a challenge. Much more difficult than when we removed trans fats which was indiscernible to our customers. And that is our goal with removing sodium. Eliminating trans fats didn’t affect the taste, but we all know that sodium enhances flavor. And, in baked goods, there are a lot of functional benefits of salt. Our endeavor is to upgrade the guest experience by providing flavorful menu items while we reduce sodium in them.

Tell us about your strategy for reducing sodium.

We have adopted a stepped approach. We are reducing sodium by 10 to 20 percent, and we find that most of the time, our guests don’t notice the change. So, then we are letting our guests adapt to that and are planning to make further reductions in the coming years. We have a variety of menu categories, so we have started primarily with our soups and sandwiches. We reduced the sodium in our French onion soup from about 2,000 milligrams to 1,380 milligrams in a 12-ounce portion. Our customers agree with us that it tastes even better now. It has a richer, bolder onion taste. When we reduced the sodium in our Wild Mushroom Bisque, we didn’t find the same results. Instead, lowering the sodium intensified the other flavors too much. We found a really strong pepper taste. So we had to reformulate. We reduced the pepper, added a few other types of mushrooms, and kept trying it until it was just right. We are prioritizing about 12 soups per year. There are more lower-sodium bases available now, so that is very helpful.

You have also been looking at reducing sodium in your breads, right?

Yes, and that is a tricky one. There are some important baking benefits related to adding salt to bread. You need just the right amount of salt for a uniform texture. The salt provides the necessary elasticity to hold the water, adds flavor, and helps to retard the yeast. We started with our signature baguette by experimenting with reducing the salt. We tried salt replacers but found a loss of fermentation and flavor, and it resulted in softer crust and a higher cost. We finally found a formulation that seems to work in the initial trial.

What is your best advice to others?

Just start. There are solutions. It just takes time, but it is worth it in the end.

About Anita Jones-Mueller, M.P.H.
Anita founded Healthy Dining with a vision and dedication to contribute to a healthier America by “bringing together the culinary brilliance of the restaurant industry with America’s growing quest for great-tasting, healthier cuisine.” She is a nationally recognized authority bringing to market innovative nutrition-related strategies and solutions to enable the restaurant industry to prosper while helping to educate and empower Americans to enjoy healthier cuisine. Anita earned a Master’s Degree in Public Health from San Diego State University.

Contact Anita Jones-Muller at [email protected].

TAGS: Food Trends
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