Is Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich Risking Hubris by Knocking Fast-Food Competitors?

Panera Bread Founder and CEO Ron Shaich has called out the chiefs of fast-food chains for putting bad nutrition in their meals for kids. But Shaich should hope the same fate won’t befall Panera as what happened after CEO Steve Ells of Chipotle took on the bad boys of quick-serve restaurants.

St. Louis-based Panera Bread is one of the brands, along with Chipotle, that defined a new era of “fast casual” restaurant chains that helped take big chunks of business away from traditional fast feeders over the last decade or so. But only this year did Panera complete a commitment it made a few years ago to make its food absolutely as “clean” as possible, by taking out all man-made preservatives, sweeteners, colors and flavors and reformulating 122 of its 450 ingredients.

And then last week, Panera unveiled a new approach to kids’ food that allows children to choose almost any item on the menu as a smaller-sized entrée, creating dozens more options for children’s meals than most restaurants provide.

So with Panera’s house in order on the clean-label count, Shaich now feels free to attack counterparts who clearly can’t make the same claim.

“as a parent, I’m offended when people are trying to pretend to be something they’re not, so it was very much a personal statement.”

“As a parent, I’m proud that I could eat off the Panera kids menu and still enjoy delicious and wholesome meals,” Shaich said in a company statement. “I’m challenging the CEOs of some of the largest companies in the industry—McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s—to personally eat exclusively from their restaurants’ kids meals for an entire week—and if not, to take a thoughtful look at what they are offering our smallest guests.”

He continued, “What do you think the nutritional content of the food you’d be eating is,” in an interview with Business Insider. “Do you feel good about that? And if you don’t feel good about it, why would you serve it to kids?”

The gambit carried shades of Morgan Spurlock, the previously unknown “documentarian” who in 2004 released Super Size Me, which showed how eating nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days straight destroyed his health.

And clearly Shaich has conviction about this issue; he’s not just an opportunist. In fact, he knocked McDonald’s by name previously a few months ago, publicly criticizing the chain for marketing its Chicken McNuggets as preservative-free.

“Kids will dip [the nuggets] in sauces that are filled with preservatives, and that’s wrong,” Shaich explained to the Wall Street Journal. “I have never pushed on a competitor. It isn’t part of our public-relations program. But as a parent, I’m offended when people are trying to pretend to be something they’re not, so it was very much a personal statement.”

In fact, Panera’s overwhelming food transparency even prompted the chain to label on its new cups the fact that a 20-ounce regular soft drink contains a whopping 17.25 teaspoons of sugar. “We believe in two things: real choices and real transparency,” Shaich told Business Insider. Panera launched lower-calorie drinks earlier this year.

It certainly helps Shaich’s footing on his soapbox that he’s got financial security after he sold Panera earlier this year to JAB Holdings, the owner of Caribou Coffee and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, for $7.5 billion.

Still, Shaich might want to look at the obvious teachable moments from the recent crash at Chipotle. The brand made a big deal of criticizing—in clever, animated online videos and elsewhere—what Chipotle called the “industrial” complex of mainstream fast feeders that pumped antibiotics into chicken and committed other sins.

Meanwhile, of course, Chipotle extolled its own use of only antibiotic-free meats and other simple, “clean” ingredients to position itself as the ultimate safe meal choice for millennials and other living things.

Unfortunately, a couple of years ago it came to be known that, while harshly criticizing mainstream rivals, Chipotle couldn’t hold a candle to them in terms of food safety. Dozens of people got sick from Chipotle fare in at least a couple of separate waves of food poisoning, taking a major whack out of Chipotle sales—from which the chain still hasn’t recovered.

McDonald’s and Burger King executives might call that hubris or just karma. But while Ells has been apologetic about making customers sick, he hasn’t apologized for criticizing the competition.

Shaich would be wise to make sure Panera Bread avoids a Chipotle kind of mistake.

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Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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