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Panera has been quietly introducing operational and policy changes.

Is there more to Panera’s menu overhaul than meets the eye?

From shuttering a fresh dough manufacturing plant, to quietly stepping back from antibiotics-free, animal welfare-focused messaging, Panera has been changing more than just menu additions

Last week, Panera Bread unveiled its “biggest menu transformation in history,” including nine new items and reimagined recipes and portion sizes, for a total of 20 menu updates. The new menu items include sandwiches like the Toasted Italiano sandwich with Black Forest ham, soppressata and provolone; and salads like the Southwest Chicken Ranch with romaine lettuce, grilled chicken, Ranch dressing, and chipotle aioli.  Panera COO Debbie Roberts dubbed the menu overhaul the start of “Panera’s new era” as the company “gets back to [its] roots” in the salad and sandwich categories.

But this brand transformation doesn’t just add new items—it also removes items. Although not included in the original press release, a Panera spokesperson confirmed with NRN that flatbreads would be removed from the menu moving forward. Flatbreads were introduced in 2019 as part of a previous menu overhaul as the JAB Holding-owned company introduced new menu categories specifically designed to target the dinner daypart.

The flatbreads were named on a list of items that are allegedly being discontinued, as posted to the Panera Reddit community. Several employees claim that this list is part of a 19% menu reduction that is being rolled out to cafes in April, in addition to the publicized new menu items. Besides the pepperoni, margherita, and cheese flatbread pizzas, the list also alleges items like turkey chili, Asian sesame salad with chicken, plain butter croissant, and the sesame seed bagel will be getting the ax, alongside Mediterranean bowls — which were also introduced in 2019 alongside flatbread pizzas.

Similarly, over the summer, a TikTok  allegedly from a Panera employee, went viral for claiming 30 menu items were being eliminated from Panera cafes. The TikTok user alleged that items soon to disappear from the Panera menu include the Bistro French Onion Soup, Ten Vegetable Soup, all cold brew drinks, all grain bowls, and several bakery items, including the blueberry scone, butter croissant, and kitchen sink cookie.

Panera told NRN at the time that this streamlined menu is being tested in select stores around the country to improve guest experience and convenience but did not note if this shrunken menu would expand nationally.

This new list of Panera menu items allegedly being phased out circulating on Reddit does not entirely match up with the one from the viral TikTok, but there are some overlaps, like the company’s lineup of cold brew coffees, the butter croissant, and the blueberry scone.  

While NRN could not confirm the veracity of this list, one Panera spokesperson did clarify that while flatbreads have been removed from the menu, several menu favorites will still be available. For example, sourdough bread will still be available for guests, though according to the list on Reddit, sourdough bread is being replaced by country rustic sourdough bread.  

“Panera will absolutely be serving longtime guest favorites like sourdough on sandwiches and via its iconic sourdough bread bowl and other longtime favs like French onion soup, broccoli cheddar soup, Toasted Frontega Chicken sandwich, mac & cheese, the kitchen sink cookie and more,” a Panera spokesperson clarified, naming several of the popular items mentioned in the original viral TikTok that are safe apparently from removal.

Changes have been in the works at Panera for quite some time. Multiple Reddit users working for Panera have complained about cafes allegedly switching from freshly baked bread and other bakery items to par-baked items, which are partially baked, then frozen, and finished in the oven on-premises.

Although par-baked items have been part of the Panera supply chain for years, according to multiple Panera café employees, that preparation method has been ramping up recently. Multiple Panera employees confirmed with NRN that bakers have faced layoffs, had their hours reduced and/or schedules changed over the past several months due to these changes that are all allegedly part of the company’s new “Bakery of the Future” plan, which includes installing larger freezers in the back of house to make room for more par-baked products.

“Around two years ago is when we first started hearing of frozen bread,” ‘M.J.,’ a baker trainer specialist at Panera for four years, told NRN. “We've always had some level of premade frozen sweets or pastries [because] for a business the size of Panera, it did not make sense to make everything from scratch…. What's new is frozen sweets that take little to no prep before or after they come out of the oven. Our croissants, pecan braids and cinnamon rolls are just a few items that have been completely redone to remove any prep before coming out of the oven, and minimal finishing after.”

M.J. said that amid these changes, many bakers’ shifts went from 8-12 hours daily, to two to four hours, which led to many bakers quitting because it’s impossible to make a living off of so few hours. “Bakery of the Future” Panera stores are currently in place in more isolated areas that don’t have easy access to dough from Fresh Dough manufacturing Facilities (FDF plants), though multiple employees confirmed these new bakery layouts are being rolled out to more cafes.   

“Anything frozen and premade is not going to have the same taste, texture, or look as a fresh product, as they have to make changes or sacrifices to simply the process,” M.J. said. “Currently, there's no publicly shared date on when frozen breads are coming to my stores, but certain cafes are being remodeled to hold larger walk-in freezers to make space for more product, and every new cafe opening has had less room for the bakers and smaller ovens.”

Historically, Panera uses FDFs to produce all the fresh bread, bagel, and roll dough for the brand, and transport the fresh dough to surrounding Panera bakery-cafes every day, where they are baked from scratch on premises. Panera confirmed with NRN that one of the company’s FDFs in Houston, Texas recently shut down “due to under-performance” and that the company held a job fair on Feb. 27 for all affected laid-off employees to help them regain employment with the company.

Shawn Kearns, a former Panera corporate employee who worked as the vice president of bakery until Aug. 2020, said that when he left, discussions about creating the “Bakery of the Future” were just beginning, though there was nothing set in stone at that point, and that quality bakers have always been essential to the Panera brand.

“I will tell you, in the few initial meetings I was in before I left, FDF closures were never a consideration,” Kearns said. “They were vital to the operation of the business.”

One former Panera baker, “S.P.” who worked at the Windsong Ranch Panera location in Prosper, Texas was employed with the company from July until Dec. 2023, and told NRN that they quit after their hours were reduced from 40 to 16 per week. They had also heard about their nearest FDF shutting down, but employees had not received official verification concerning this news.

“We got training on e-learning about the new cinnamon rolls which no longer required proofing-- they went straight from freezer to oven,” S.P. said. “I quit before they made the switch to frozen bread. All of the pastries, except for the decorated shortbread cookies are frozen. Everything. Muffins, cookies, croissants etc…. the cafe I worked at will be modified to have more freezer space — they removed the deck oven while I was there because now all the bread dough and bagels will arrive parbaked.”

Multiple employees clarified that bakery shifts at some stores have also changed from overnight to daytime, which led to unsatisfied employees whose schedules were drastically altered.

In the latest development, an employee  in the Panera Reddit community recently posted new store guidelines that ask employees to remove all signage and mentions of “no antibiotics ever, vegetarian-fed, grass pasture-raised, animal welfare and hormones.”

Back in 2015, Panera introduced its “no-no list” of unacceptable ingredients that will never be included on a Panera menu. This list of changes was intended to bolster Panera’s reputation for “clean food” sourcing policies that differentiate the brand from other foodservice companies, which are detailed in the company’s food beliefs.

Also in 2015, Panera introduced antibiotics-free chicken, which was eventually expanded to all animal proteins. As of 2022, 100% of Panera’s sourced chickens and pigs were raised without antibiotics, and 86% of its turkey was raised without antibiotics (due to an avian influenza outbreak that year). Additionally, in 2022, all of Panera’s sourced beef products were from cows that were pasture-raised and grass-fed with only “judicious use of antibiotics.” But according to these new guidelines, that appears to be changing.

“This policy update allows for judicious use of antibiotics in our pork and turkey products and provides more flexibility in our feeding standards for chicken and beef, allowing us to consider additional sources of supply and more effective pricing,” the updated internal memo reads.

According to this internal memo, the new guidelines for store information and signage, alongside the menu overhaul, are being rolled out in March and April.

“The changes to our ingredients have not changed our ability to state that our ingredients are ‘clean’ as that is defined by Panera in our no-no list,” the guidelines stated.

Regarding the above policy and operational changes — including menu streamlining, the new Bakery of the Future kitchens, and updated sourcing policies — Panera Bread sent NRN the following company statement:

“We are focused on serving food our guests can feel good about, with the right combination of quality, taste, and value. As we grow to reach more guests, we continue to hold ourselves to high standards of quality for the ingredients we use.”

Contact Joanna at [email protected]m

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