'We haven't seen much change;' Why Panera challenged McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's on kids menus

Panera CEO Ron Shaich wants to ignite a dialogue about healthier menu options for kids at fast-food chains.

ST. LOUIS: Panera Bread founder and CEO Ron Shaich threw down the gauntlet against counterparts at McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s on Wednesday, challenging them to eat off their chains’ kids menus for one week or re-evaluate what they are serving to children.

His challenge was issued more than a year after Panera’s Kids Meal Promise, in which the chain pledged to serve no artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners, or colors on its kids menu. It also promised to avoid marketing gimmicks such as toys or toy-shaped food and said it won’t encourage kids to drink sugary beverages.

"Since then, we haven’t seen much change," said Panera SVP of marketing Chris Hollander. "We believe we can influence change, so we wanted to take another shot and spark some dialogue and keep this conversation going."

Panera decided the message should be delivered in a video from Shaich because he is challenging other CEOs, his peers in the industry.

"This is who he is and what he is all about," said Hollander. "We felt the best way to talk about this and make this challenge real was to use him. It comes from his heart and what he believes in."

"For too long, food chains in the U.S. have served children poorly, offering menu items like pizza, nuggets, and fries, accompanied by cheap toys and sugar-laced drinks," Shaich said in the video, adding that Panera’s menu offers 250 "clean combinations." He concluded with his challenge to other executives.

At lunchtime on Wednesday, Panera posted another tweet showing Shaich eating lunch from the kids’ menu.

Panera also sent a memo to its 100,000 staffers, informing them about its actions and encouraging them to spread the word on social media and in-person at Panera locations.

"Whether anyone responds to us officially -- even if they don’t -- we are hoping sometime, in the middle of the night or when they are sitting alone or with colleagues, is thinking about whether they are doing right by kids," said Hollander. "That alone is powerful enough."

Panera is planning more outreach. If the chain doesn’t hear back from competitors’ CEOs, it will send another public message, Hollander said.

The chain’s agency partners are supporting the campaign, including Sloane & Company for business PR and Weber Shandwick for consumer communications. Anomaly is the company’s creative agency.

Andrea Abate, manager of media relations and global communications at McDonald's, said via email that the company is proud of how it is "continuing to raise the bar" with its menus.

"Our recent announcement that we're adding Honest Kids Juice Drink to our Happy Meals joins other positive changes we have made, such as removing artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets, which also don’t have artificial colors or flavors," she said.

Representatives from Wendy’s and Burger King could not be immediately reached for comment.

"It’s interesting sitting around, seeing if they respond," said Hollander. "If they do, it’ll be fun."

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