Panera Bread Co., ratcheting up the restaurant industry's race to purify ingredients, will be the first national chain to serve so-called clean bacon.
The company spent the past year working with suppliers to remove artificial nitrates and preservatives from the bacon it uses on sandwiches and salads at its roughly 2,000 cafes. The pork project was part of a larger effort by the St. Louis-based company to rid its menu of artificial flavors, colors, preservatives and sweeteners by the end of the year.
Panera is at the forefront of a push to offer fresher and additive-free foods, positioning its fare as a healthier alternative to fast-food burgers. Panera's marketing pitch comes at a time when the broader industry faces a slowdown. Cheap grocery prices have prompted many diners to eat more at home, putting pressure on restaurants to entice customers.
Panera's results have held up better than some competitors this year. Its same-store sales grew 4.2% in the second quarter. Chipotle Mexican Grill, its longtime rival in cultivating a less-processed menu, saw sales plunge 24% last quarter after an E. coli outbreak scared away customers. Panera's shares have climbed 1.4% this year, compared with a 17% decline for Chipotle. McDonald's also has dropped in 2016, falling 1.4%.
Panera announced last month that it was "cleaning up" its kids menu, claiming superiority over chains such as McDonald's. With clean bacon, Panera is once again trying to reach customers who are seeking less-processed alternatives.
"We cleaned out some of the junk," said Sara Burnett, Panera's director of food policy.
Panera announced last year that it eliminated artificial additives from 85% of its menu and would complete the project by the end of 2016. But it isn't alone in cleaning up its food lineup. McDonald's and other chains are increasingly purging their menus of less-natural ingredients. They're also embracing cage-free eggs and chicken raised without antibiotics.
It was considered a marketing coup when Chipotle said last year that it had rid its menu of genetically modified organisms. Still, with the burrito chain reeling from a wide-ranging food safety crisis, Panera has stolen much of the spotlight. With the bacon project complete, Panera is now about 95% of the way to its goal, according to Ms. Burnett. She said a handful of bakery items have to be addressed in the next few months.
Panera served roughly 2 million pounds of bacon last year, or about 115 million slices. Once the company started examining how to remove artificial ingredients from the cured meat, it decided to overhaul its "entire bacon experience," according to Ms. Burnett. Bacon slices at Panera will now be 25% thicker and prepared using a new brine.
Panera gets its pork from pigs raised without antibiotics or gestation crates, and the animals are fed a vegetarian diet. With the artificial additives now removed, Panera says no other national chain is serving bacon that meets its standards.
"Some of the things we've done are simple -- it's just a matter of asking why we've been doing it that way," said Dan Kish, who leads the company's culinary team. "We lifted the hood on everything on the menu."
-- Bloomberg News