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Is Your Menu Relevant?

How Panera Bread is staying on top of – and helping to set – national food trends

Interview with Panera Bread® Head Baker Tom Gumpel

Tom Gumpel gets up every morning eager to fulfill a quest. As head baker at Panera Bread, Gumpel’s passion is not only to search the planet and unearth the most exceptional ingredients and procure them for Panera, but to dabble, discover and test unusual baking techniques and food formats. On some days, Gumpel’s job is simply to make cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.

Gumpel’s assignment isn’t just to stay on top of the latest food trends and formats, but to actually help set them, while helping Panera weave the masterful tale that has made it one of America’s leading fast casual restaurants. You see, Panera’s evolution – and success – is part of a great ebb and flow, and the company has distinguished itself as a forward-thinking chain, not only by what they put into their foods, but what they have taken out.

Our mantra and our promise to ourselves and our customers is ‘Food As It Should Be,’” said Gumpel in a recent interview at Panera Bread on West Division Street in downtown Chicago. “We live in a world where we spend a lot of time taking things out of our foods, things that we and our customers believe don’t belong.” Lately, Panera has been somewhat fixated on its “Clean” initiative, which includes “The No No List” of artificial preservatives, sweeteners, colors and flavors they committed to taking out of their food menu by the end of 2016. Gumpel is proud of the effort because it illustrates how Panera is tangibly fulfilling its promise to customers.

And, none to soon. A recent special report in Fortune Magazine stated that, “Major packaged-food companies lost $4 billion in market share alone last year, as shoppers swerved to fresh and organic alternatives.” Fortune cited Credit Suisse analyst Robert Moskow, who found that the top 25 U.S. food and beverage companies have lost an equivalent of $18 billion in market share since 2009. “I would think of them like melting icebergs,” Moskow told Fortune. “Every year they become a little less relevant.”

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Tom Gumpel’s insights and instincts about his customers may be part of the reason why Panera continues to stay relevant. “Our Panera customer is very unique,” he explains. “They are people who get the importance of ingredients. These are customers who are food savvy and trend forward when it comes to food and other parts of their lives. And they understand quality.”

Gumpel explains that for Panera’s closest customer, food is not just a one-time eating event. “Our customer is looking for ingredients that tell a story,” he explains, “both through flavor and origin.” In other words, the Panera customer wants to know not just where the ingredients came from, but who grew and harvested them. “What’s important in the scone or the cookie,” he says, “is to understand it as a full story.”

Bottom line: Gumpel’s greatest trick to staying relevant seems to be that he’s listening, very attentively, to his customers.