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The secret to creating best-selling menu items in a real foods world

Interview with Panera Bread® Head Baker Tom Gumpel

In a recent interview at Panera Bread in downtown Chicago, Head Baker Tom Gumpel told the powerful tale of his Wild Blueberry Scone. The simple, baked breakfast scone has become a constant on the Panera menu. “We rotate flavors out seasonally,” explains Gumpel, ”but that one scone – I couldn’t get rid of it – there would be a backlash from our customers.”

In fact, The Wild Blueberry Scone has been a star at Panera for years. The restaurant chain makes and sells tens of thousands of them each week at its nearly 2,000 bakery-cafes across the US and Canada. With its simple list of recognizable ingredients, The Wild Blueberry Scone not only adheres to Panera’s “clean commitment, but it also has become something of an emblem of that initiative.

Food As It Should Be

After spending time with Gumpel, it becomes abundantly clear that he’s deeply committed to listening to his customers and to understanding their convictions. What he’s learned is that they are searching for food that is as close to the source as possible. “Probably the most predominant food trend at Panera is Clean Food and Food As It Should Be,” he adds. “When you turn an ingredient label around, you should be able to recognize everything on that label. It should be familiar to you.’”

That is one of the biggest reasons behind the success of his simple scone. “The Wild Blueberry Scone is made with simple ingredients,” explains Gumpel. “These are ingredients you would find in your cupboard at home. Flour, salt, baking powder, cream and sugar, combined with a hero like dried, infused wild blueberries” Regular cultivated blueberries included in a scone or a muffin are important, explains Gumpel, “but if you’re able to dial that up and get Wild Blueberries, now that is the opportunity of a lifetime. The Wild Blueberry has a great story, it’s got great nutrition, and most of all, it’s got great flavor.”

The Power of Wild 

Wild Foods are in a category all their own and even Gumpel was challenged to name more than a few. Wild mushrooms, wild salmon, and seasonal delicacies like fiddleheads, dandelion greens, burdock root and lambs quarters are some favorites of foragers. In fact, a recent book Eating on the Wild Side, extols the nutritional value of eating closer to the way nature intended.

Wild Foods could be poised to become the next hot Real Foods trend as customers seek out ingredients that are unaltered by man or science. Tom Gumpel explains: Local and organic are hot, but Wild is uniquely hot because there are not a lot of ingredients that can claim that. With Wild, you are talking about a relationship with nature and the consumer,” he notes. “Our customers connect with that. When they see Wild on the menu, it means something to them. It closes the gap between nature and them. It’s nature providing something for them in a very personal way.”

A Wild Hero

Gumpel explains that Panera has spent the better part of the last two years scrutinizing its own menu and removing artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives from its foods by the end of 2016. When it came time to focus on putting the right things in, one decision was obvious. “Wild Blueberries are about putting in something that is not only unique, but has a really great story that goes back to farms and families and nutrition and everything that our customers believe in.”

The dough, he tells us, is simply a backdrop for dried, infused wild blueberries as hero. “It’s not very often that you can find an ingredient that lives up to the role of a hero,” laughs Gumpel. “If you understand the story of Wild Blueberries then you get it. They are miraculous. We are really proud of that scone. It’s a strong seller for us.”

As a baker, Gumpel can offer a litany of reasons why Wild Blueberries are a great ingredient. “In batters and dough it disperses really well,” he says. They are nice and small, so as you eat them, you have a couple in each bite and you’re not searching for the big nugget somewhere. They also perform well in diverse mixes, such as citrus flavors and nuts and cinnamon and sugar, he added.

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A Love Affair with Wild Blueberries

Gumpel’s love affair with Wild Blueberries started as a young boy, when he accompanied his older brother on a trip to the Coast of Maine. “We stayed at a friend’s house for a few days and his backyard was full of low-bush Wild Blueberries. We just sat there gorging ourselves. That’s where it all got started for me as a young kid.” Today, the reason Gumpel would choose Wild Blueberries: “First and foremost, the flavor. You can’t beat them.”

Then, he pauses, as if tapping into a deeper well of emotion. “I use Wild Blueberries,” he confesses, “simply because I love them.”

STAY INSPIRED WITH THE POWER OF Wild

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