Panera Bread (PNRA) buys a lot of bacon each year -- over two million pounds, or the equivalent of 115 million slices, to be exact. Now the star of the classic bacon, egg and cheese sandwich will be "clean" at all Panera Bread locations.
"Clean" is simply the buzzword that food is free of artificial ingredients, a term that has become popular among food companies trying to appeal to more health-conscious eaters. Over a year in development, Panera's new bacon 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.
The bacon used by McDonald's (MCD) and Restaurant Brands' (QSR) Burger King chain, for example, both contain sodium phosphate, sodium erythorbate and sodium nitrite. Panera's new bacon strips tend to be a touch thicker than the ones they are replacing, according to a spokeswoman at an event held in, of all places, New York City's Meatpacking District this week.
In several taste tests, we found the bacon less salty than standard fast-food bacon or supermarket products. "If we are going to clean up the menu, we can't ignore bacon," Panera Bread's head chef Dan Kish told TheStreet.
It's not like Panera has ignored cleaning up other areas of its menu this year. In September, Panera's entire kids' menu -- consisting of items such as a peanut and jelly sandwich, chicken noodle soup and mac and cheese -- went "clean." January brought news of a soup menu totally free of artificial ingredients.
Kish says Panera remains on track to complete the removal of more than 150 ingredients, including artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives, on its 2015 "No No List" by the end of this year.
Consumers and Wall Street seem to like Panera's focus on menu quality. System-wide same-store sales rose a solid 2.3% during the second quarter, while shares are up about 7% on the year.
"Panera has made a calculated push into clean and healthy food, revamping its menu and marketing campaigns and contributing to the chain's popularity with Millennials. It is clear that competitors are lagging," said Jim Cramer, TheStreet's founder and manager of the Action Alerts PLUS portfolio, which owns Panera Bread shares.
Perhaps the best part of Panera's new bacon has nothing to do with the taste. Panera isn't yet passing on the higher cost of its clean bacon onto customers.