Panera CEO Pushes Fast-Food Chains to Sell Better Kids' Meals

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Panera's CEO has a message for the CEOs of fast-food chains: Try eating what you serve to kids.

Ron Shaich on Wednesday is issuing a challenge to the CEOs of McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King to eat off of their restaurants' kids' menus for a week or reevaluate what they offer to kids.

"There's a better way to do a kids' meal," says Shaich, a father of two teenagers who admits his family indulges in foods such as hamburgers when they want a break from his chain's soups, salads and sandwiches.

The PR ploy, which follows another campaign that took aim at the competition a year earlier, comes as Panera starts offering half-sized salads and sandwiches from its main menu to kids for more variety.

While the kids' menu additions and CEO challenge are being pushed out on social media and with public relations outreach, Shaich claims it's not a sales tactic. "I don't think sales are going up because of this, I really don't," Shaich says.

Nor does he expect it to lead to any immediate changes in the burger chains' menus, though he hopes it makes the executives wake up at night thinking about what they serve. The video, from creative agency Anomaly, is the main element of the campaign.

"If we're not proud of the food we serve we should change it, not try to fight it," Shaich says, citing some of Panera's prior efforts, including being an early proponent of serving chicken raised without antibiotics, posting calorie information on menu boards and removing artificial flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and colors from its food.

When it comes to the food served at Panera, Shaich wants to make sure the kids' meals are not the "nutritional nightmares" he sees at other chains, including sides he says are often "nutritionally empty," such as french fries. Panera's side options for kids are apples, organic squeezable yogurt and sprouted grain rolls. Meals come with water, or parents can pay for other beverages such as boxes of organic milk, chocolate milk and apple juice.

"What bothers me personally is when I see certain folks that advertise one menu item as clean and at the same time don't mention that you're going to take that clean Chicken McNugget" and dip it into a sauce "that's laced with not such good stuff," Shaich says.

McDonald's did see some success after removing artificial preservatives from its McNuggets last year.

At many fast-food restaurants, kids' meals are often promoted with toys including ones tied to movies. At Panera, there are no such add-ons or, as Shaich would call them, gimmicks. Kids' meals account for a single-digit percentage of the chain's sales, with the turkey sandwich being one of the more popular sellers, according to Shaich.

Panera didn't say how many parents opt for water or pay extra for a different drink. Over the past several years, chains such as McDonald's have emphasized milk and juice over soft drinks in their kids' meals. Panera has been touting its own craft beverages, which are lower in sugar than mainstay soft drinks, which it still sells.

Coincidentally, the video comes days after McDonald's announced that starting in late November it will offer Honest Kids' organic apple juice drink as a choice in Happy Meals rather than a Minute Maid apple juice. Both products come from Coca-Cola Co., and the Honest Kids version has fewer calories and less sugar. "We are committed to continuing our food journey for the benefit of our guests," McDonald's said when it announced the drink swap.

Shaich calls the McDonald's juice switch "great."

And while Panera, which was sold to Germany's JAB earlier this year, no longer has to post its results, Shaich did give one update on the chain's performance. Comparable sales at company-owned locations are up more than 6 percent so far this year, he says. That's up from the 5.3 percent increase it posted for the first quarter, soon before it went private.

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