Sara Burnett

Director of Wellness & Food Policy, Panera

Panera Bread Company is a bakery-café chain of fast casual restaurants with over 2,000 locations in the US and Canada.


Q: Why did your restaurant choose to add plant-based entrées to the menu?

Sara: For a couple reasons, but we’re driven first by taste. Over the last couple years, we’ve been balancing out our menu, looking at not just diverse product categories but also how diverse our offerings are within each category. We want to have more than one salad that can be made plant-based and taste great. One of the trends we’re focusing on is plant-based, in addition to other trends such as dairy-free.


Q: Is plant-based the biggest trend for you?

Sara: Plant forward is the number one diet and lifestyle trend we’re following. In particular, the movement to reduce meat consumption with a flexible diet as opposed to a no meat diet. For many people, plant-forward eating is becoming a wellness or environmental choice, often both.


Q: What new plant-based products would you like to see manufacturers develop?

Sara: There isn’t really a challenge on the supply side. I actually think the heavy lift is on the culinary side, to make plant-based foods highly desirable and increasing consumer acceptance. We are somewhat unique: while we are looking for exciting plant-based dishes, we emphasize minimally processed foods, so we don’t seek out highly processed ingredients. Novel plant-based protein products are cool, but we do classic and basic whole food ingredients.


Q: What are the benefits from a business perspective of offering plant-based dishes?

Sara: There are a couple things: first, we try every day to think about our menu in the long and short term. Adoption rates of a new menu item or ingredient might be harder than normal today, but if the trend of flexitarian and plant-based continues to grow, we are positioning ourselves perfectly. It’s not short-sighted at all if we think about the long-term vision of where the guest will be in 5 years.


Secondly, we think about some of this stuff as being simple wins, we can use our core capabilities and items already in our pantry to be more plant-forward. It’s not always about adding a new item, we often adapt existing ones, with existing ingredients.

Last year, we looked at our broth bowls, we had always menu’ed them with protein on top, so we asked, “Why aren’t we leveraging this for our plant-based customers?” They’re super tasty and desirable. It was a simple change, we started menuing multiple versions, and it serves our guests’ needs while diversifying our offerings. As people want to try new things, dishes like that can be a great introduction to how filling and desirable plant-based foods can be and a stepping stone to trying more. In addition, we don’t have to wait on a traditional innovation and sourcing pipeline by leveraging what we already have.


Q: Did you see an overall % sales increase once plant-based products were carried?

Sara: The recent plant-based dishes have been valuable enough that they made it through two additional menu change cycles, so at a high level, they seem to be worth the additional recipes and SKU’s.


Q: Do you have insights into whether consumers ordering the plant-based entrées are vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian?

Sara: Not really, we do have a sense of our core customers, but we don’t really link them to specific menu items. When look at our most valuable customer, they index in terms of diet very similarly to the general population. What we do see, however, is that openness to new experiences and a desire to be flexitarian is higher than the general population.


One thing that surprised me is that we do over-index on consumers who read Vegetarian Times. While some people who self-identify as categories like vegetarian are great customers, I think it’s more people reducing animal proteins, who are not about perfection or seeking a holistic diet shift, they’re just interested in reducing. They realize they don’t have to eat meat to feel satisfied.


Q: What promotions seem most effective for plant-based dishes?

Sara: We’re trying to figure out how to talk about plant-based in a way that is approachable and craveable. We’re working with the World Resources Institute (WRI) Better Buying Lab on a study of the language used for plant-based dishes. From product naming using culinary technique to weeding out less craveworthy cues like low fat or vegan icons, we’re studying how to grow sales of plant based items simply using flavor first, culinary first language.


One tactic is curation and for our digital properties and online platform, we do have a plant-based category, but we may change it to plant-forward or similar in the future. Many consumers have no idea what plant-based and plant-forward mean. That said, putting the plant-based dishes in a special collection helps serve a lot of guests but not always the flexitarian. We’re researching the exact language to engage both the vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian guests.  For example we have a Protein Rich menu and a Nutrient Rich menu that contain some vegetarian and vegan items.


Q: Any final advice for other restaurants considering adding plant-based dishes?

Sara: You can get great nutrient density out of plant-based foods. It doesn’t need to be a salad with 25 grams of chicken protein on it. There is an illusion that plant protein doesn’t hold the same value to the consumer as plant-based protein. But the guest is quickly learning that it’s just as much about satisfaction and satiety than a number on a nutrition facts panel. When you approach plant-based dish development with taste and satiety in mind, you can win.