Chain Reaction: 2,000 Locations and good food in every one

How does the head chef of the Panera chain—which has nearly 2,000 locations in 45 states—feel about food? Just this: He wants all customers to get the chance to eat fresh, local food easily. We caught up with Dan Kish to find out how he makes this a reality in every Panera eatery in the country.
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How does the head chef of the Panera chain—which has nearly 2,000 locations in 45 states—feel about food? Just this: He wants all customers to get the chance to eat fresh, local food easily. We caught up with Dan Kish to find out how he makes this a reality in every Panera eatery in the country.

VT: What’s different about the Panera menu? 

DAN KISH: I think of our menu not as a thing on the wall telling you what we have, but more of the whole pantry of ingredients we’re working with. We have component parts that fit together through the year. For instance, one of our core pantry items is organic quinoa—we put it in breakfasts, on salads, in soups at lunch or entrees in dinner. It’s a staple item. We have summer menu, fall menu and a winter-spring menu. But I’m always looking for items that are relevant seasonally. Ahead, you’ll see more and more fresh cut produce and raw ingredients on menu.

VT: Is it true that you get fresh dough and produce to every café every day?

DAN KISH: Yes. We have 22 fresh dough facilities around the country that mix dough every night and then our trucks deliver that dough to every café, every day. Those same trucks pick up and deliver fresh herbs, lettuces, and tomatoes to every café too.

VT: How do you know what’s trending in food?

DAN KISH: Research is showing that a lot of people are eating a plant-based diet one day a week and some every day. So we curate meatless items to offer them. So, if you choose to not eat meat, we offer responsible nutritional replacements—plant protein in a balanced entrée sandwich or soup. Each category on our menu features items for folks who choose not to eat meat.

VT: Do you have vegan items?

DAN KISH: Yes, and a great example is our broth bowls. We have broth bowls that include organic brown rice, organic quinoa, vegetarian cooked lentils, kale and spinach, all steamed together in a soy miso broth. If you want, you can add a cage-free egg. We’ve had great feedback.

VT: Do you feature a lot of grains?

DAN KISH: Yes, and in September we’re introducing an ancient grain blend, that includes organic freekeh, black barley, and roasted radish seeds—it will be in soups, salads, even sandwiches.

VT: Are you seeing a lot of calorie-conscious customers?

DAN KISH: Yes. We were the first restaurant chain to post calories—we had nothing to hide. Transparency is important because then you can make an informed choice about what you eat. It didn’t change people’s eating patterns, but it did make them aware of what they were eating.  At Panera you can get half portions of salads, soups, or sandwiches, and the calorie count will go down substantially.

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