Now, at long last, the company has finally crossed the finish line. Panera announced on Friday that its entire U.S. food menu--which includes items such as salad dressings sold in supermarkets--are free of all artificial flavors, preservatives and sweeteners. In other words, Panera has a totally "clean" menu of food (minus artificial stuff), which is a buzzword that has become popular among food companies trying to appeal to more health-conscious eaters.
The process took over 10 years to complete and led Panera to review more than 450 ingredients across its supply chain. Subsequently, Panera reformulated 122 ingredients, resulting in changes to the majority of its recipes.
"We are trying to tell people that when they walk into Panera they don't need to be a food scientist or carry a dictionary, they know the food they are going to get is clean--it's not marketing," Panera Bread's founder, chairman and CEO Ron Shaich explained to TheStreet in an interview. "One of the challenges out there is that people don't have healthy options," he added.
To be sure, Panera was rather calculated in how it tore apart its menu and marketed the changes to discerning consumers.
In May 2015, Panera lifted the veil on what it called a "No No List." The company's "No No List" issued a self-imposed ban on more than 150 ingredients, including artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives. One of the first clean items Panera began selling was salad dressings. In January 2016, the company's soups received the clean label.
By September, Panera's entire kids' menu--consisting of items such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chicken noodle soup, and mac and cheese--went clean. One of the last remaining pieces of the puzzle came into place in September with clean bacon. Panera's new bacon (see video below) uses celery powder as a curing agent in place of additives typically found in fast food bacon, such as sodium nitrite, sodium phosphate and sodium erythorbate.
Consumers and Wall Street have rewarded Panera's focus on menu quality as well as investments in new ordering technology. Systemwide same-store sales rose a solid 3.4% during the third-quarter. Shares have gained an impressive 11% over the past year, outperforming McDonald's (MCD) - Get McDonald's Corporation (MCD) Report 4.4% increase. Starbucks (SBUX) - Get Starbucks Corporation Report has fallen about 2% during the same span.
"Panera remains the thought and market leader across fast-casual, with its focus on healthy ingredients and advancements in technology helping insulate the company from the lion's share of industry-level headwinds," said Jim Cramer, TheStreet's founder and manager of the Action Alerts PLUS portfolio, which owns Panera Bread shares.
Watch TheStreet's interview with Shaich from when Panera's kids' menu went clean.