Panera Might Be Lowering Standards To Skimp On Costs

The bakery chain could be taking some shortcuts that might not sit well with customers.

As Panera Bread ushers in its "new era" with a new menu, the hope is that its food quality would only improve. However, recent reports indicate that the bakery-café chain might be cutting corners in the name of efficiency and penny-pinching.

Panera's menu revamp (the latest of many) eliminated some items, including flatbread pizza, while adding more protein and larger serving sizes, as well as introducing some new items at a more affordable price point. However, Reuters reports that in order to make these updates financially feasible, Panera might be going back on its commitment to only using antibiotic-free meat in its food.

Reuters cites internal company documents that directed Panera restaurant operators to remove any signage that included the phrases "No Antibiotics Ever," "Vegetarian Fed," "Grass Fed Pasture Raised," "Animal Welfare," or any mention of "Hormones"; the deadline to remove these signs was set for March 27. Reuters notes that the documents show that relaxing these quality standards would save Panera an estimated $21 million in annual costs.

The documents establish a new policy when it comes to the brand's suppliers and directly opposes the company's prior standards. In 2014, Panera announced (and heavily promoted) that it would be removing artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives from its all of its food by 2016, Restaurant Business reported at the time. Panera also maintains a "No No List" of ingredients that it does not allow in its food as part of its commitment to use only "clean" ingredients. However, as Reuters reports, the list was recently updated to remove "phosphates, sorbic acid, and maltodextrin" from the list.

The internal documents reviewed by Reuters reveal that under the new policy, Panera allows for some of its pork and turkey products to contain antibiotics and for its chicken and cattle to come from suppliers who use feed containing animal products.

In addition to changing its tune on meat products, Panera has also shifted its process for its baked goods away from freshly baked to more par-baking, Nation's Restaurant News reports. Par-baking means that dough is partially baked off-site and then immediately frozen so that it can be shipped out and finished in an on-site oven later on.

Panera has always had par-baked items, but according to employees who spoke with Nation's Restaurant News, those have increased lately. This has led to layoffs, with many bakers' hours being so drastically reduced that they've had to quit because they can't make a living. Panera has also started to install more freezers at the back of its restaurant locations.

"Around two years ago is when we first started hearing of frozen bread," said 'M.J.,' a baker trainer specialist at Panera, to NRN. "We've always had some level of premade frozen sweets or pastries... 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."

The fact that Panera uses this process was highlighted in California recently. While a new law will soon require fast food businesses to increase their minimum wage from $16 to $20 an hour, there is a carveout in the bill for chains that prepare bread on premises. This exemption would seemingly apply to Panera—except that the dough for its bread, bagels, and rolls is made off-site at manufacturing facilities and then shipped to the restaurant locations to be baked. Thus, Panera will likely have to increase its minimum wage along with every other chain in the state.

"We are focused on serving food our guests can feel good about, with the right combination of quality, taste, and value," Panera said in a statement to The Takeout. "As we work to reach more guests, we continue to hold ourselves to high standards for the ingredients we use and are continuously making changes to our menu to deliver high quality products. We strongly believe in transparency around our ingredients and make that information available to our guests."