Panera Bread Co., seeking an edge in an increasingly cutthroat fast-food industry, is removing artificial ingredients from its kids menu and calling out other chains for targeting young diners with meals that feature soda and french fries.
Panera, which operates a chain of more than 2,000 cafes, including one in Pittsfield, has issued a "Kids Meal Promise" saying that it won't encourage children to drink soda, eat french fries or use cartoon characters or toys to push its meals. The company will introduce its new kids menu next month using revamped recipes for items like turkey sandwiches and macaroni and cheese made without artificial preservatives or sweeteners.
"It's an egregious violation of what we stand for the way kids meals are done," Chief Executive Officer Ron Shaich said during an interview on Wednesday.
Panera has had success touting its fresh and additive-free foods, positioning its menu as a healthier alternative to fast-food burgers. The company's new children's menu comes as rival chains look to improvements such as cage-free eggs or chicken raised without antibiotics to draw in customers who value ingredient transparency.
McDonald's Corp., the world's largest restaurant chain, recently said it is cutting high-fructose corn syrup from its buns and removing artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets, its most popular menu item, which is also a Happy Meal option. The company has been targeted by activists over the years for including soda and high-fat items in its kids meals.
"If you're taking one single ingredient and trying to use that to create a halo across your menu, that seems inauthentic to us and confusing to people," Shaich said. "We're paying the price to do it right. If you want the halo without doing it right, that's wrong."
Panera's kids meals have sides such as organic yogurt, apples and sprouted-grain rolls. Drinks options include water, organic milk and juice. Last year, Panera said it would remove artificial additives from its entire menu by the end of 2016 and remains on track to achieve that goal, Shaich said.
Panera's new kids meals may allow it to draw in millennial diners who have shrunk from Chipotle Mexican Grill after a string of foodborne illness outbreaks. Prior to the crisis, Chipotle's success was underpinned by the promise of fresh, fast-food made with better ingredients. But with the burrito chain still struggling, other chains are looking to lure away their devotees. The restaurant industry has also become fiercely competitive with discounts and new fare as U.S. consumers pull back spending and increasingly turn to grocery stores for cheaper options.
Touting a healthy kids menu, while taking a jab at fast food, is a way for Panera to stick out in a crowded market, said Allen Adamson, the former North American chairman of the branding firm Landor.
"With everyone chasing the same thing, they're trying to stand out," he said.