Panera Bread customers around the country soon will be able to tally calories for their smokehouse turkey panini and broccoli cheddar soup with just a glance at the menu board.
Panera announced Wednesday it will be the first nationwide chain to voluntarily post calorie information at all of its company-owned restaurants. The move is notable in an industry that had historically opposed requirements that chain operations post calorie counts.
But the landscape is changing as local laws mandating nutritional disclosure become more common and Congress considers a nationwide mandate. This is only one in a wave of changes consumers can expect to see on chain restaurant menus in coming years.
Panera officials said the possibility of wider mandates played a role in the move. But they also were pleased with how their customers reacted at Paneras that already advertise the fact that the chain's Asian sesame chicken salad has 410 calories, compared to the 680 in the Napa almond chicken salad sandwich on sesame semolina.
"It puts everything out in the open, obviously," said Scott Davis, the company's chief concept officer. "So when you look at making a choice between a soup with 100 calories and a sandwich with 300 or 400 calories, it puts it pretty clearly what's in your best interest."
Calorie counts will be posted by March 24 at all 585 company-owned stores, including Saint Louis Bread Co. and Paradise Bakery & Cafe stores. Panera expects its franchisees to eventually follow suit, which would cover all 1,380 stores.
That schedule puts Panera ahead of Yum Brands Inc. — parent of KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver's and A&W All-American Food — which committed in 2008 to place calorie counts on menu boards at corporate-owned restaurants nationwide by Jan. 1, 2011. Yum senior vice president Jonathan Blum said they are testing their menu boards and are on target to make good on the commitment at more than 3,200 restaurants.
Panera and Yum, like most national chains, already have been forced to display nutritional information in some cities as local disclosure laws kick in.
New York City health officials looking for a new way to fight obesity began requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts for the likes of burgers, pizza and doughnuts in 2008. Similar laws have since been approved in more than a dozen places, including Philadelphia and California. Congress is considering a national measure as part of health care reform.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said it's great for chains to voluntarily provide calorie counts to customers. But she added that given recent trends, they're "just getting ahead of the curve."
Anti-obesity advocates like Wootan believe the laws encourage healthier eating in restaurants. For instance, a menu board noting that a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese at McDonald's has 740 calories might inspire diners to choose a less fattening burger.
There's some evidence to back this up. Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that calorie postings in New York City Starbucks led to a 6 percent reduction in calories per transaction. New York City Department of Health's researchers last year found customers cutting calories in items at nine of 13 chains in the city, including McDonald's, KFC, Au Bon Pain and Starbucks.
Panera's Davis said buying patterns haven't changed much in the 147 outlets that already post calorie counts. But he said it seems to have inspired more customers to go for the "You Pick Two" option, which offers the choice of two items among a soup, a half sandwich and a half salad.
"The people who are really tuned into it, they love it," he said. "... The people who don't want to know about it, they don't even see it."
Restaurants have sometimes balked at the patchwork of differing local laws, and an industry group unsuccessfully sued over the New York City law. The nationwide calorie disclosure mandate for chain restaurants included in the proposed health care reform bill before Congress has drawn mixed reviews in the industry.
The National Restaurant Association supports the federal measure while the National Council of Chain Restaurants is officially neutral. Council vice president Scott Vinson said there are fairness concerns about a law that would exempt independent restaurants but cover competing chain restaurants, even if they're owned by a franchisee.
Yum supports the bill, though Blum said they'd like it to cover all restaurants "for the sake of the consumer."