Why Panera's Head Baker Is Fighting for Bread in an Era of Gluten and Carb Haters
Tastemakers is a series dedicated to major restaurant chains' executive chefs and other under-recognized experts who shape how America eats, dishing on what they're cooking, food trends and more.
As America embraces low-carb diets and gluten-free lifestyles, Tom Gumpel refuses to stop preaching the power of bread.
"Bread has been just beaten up," says Gumpel, the head baker for Panera Bread. "You have 10,000 years of bread in some form or function, and then all of a sudden this generation has just killed it. Whether it’s the carbohydrates, low-carb, gluten [free], pick something."
Gumpel's steadfast dedication to bread is unsurprising, given his history. Not only has he worked at Panera for 11 years, but he also started working in the bakery business at the tender age of 14. Today, he's 51 and has never worked outside of the industry.
According to Gumpel, bread has been under attack for his entire career. The modern low-carb diet craze began when Dr. Robert Atkins published the New Diet Revolution in 1992, an update of a book he wrote two decades earlier. Soon, low-carb diets were everywhere, with endless variants on the Atkins theme. Today, what Gumpel calls the "attack on bread" continues with the rise of gluten-free lifestyles, as one in five Americans say they actively try to include gluten-free foods in their diet.
According to Gumpel, these diets are frustrating not only from a bread-lover standpoint, but also from the position of somehow who knows nutrition.
"All you want to do is just grab people and go: 'It's not gluten. Don't be afraid of gluten,'" says Gumpel. "You don’t feel better because you stopped eating gluten. You feel better because you stopped eating two donuts a day or three slices of white bread. The magic is in the whole grains, or sprouted grains, or ancient grains. But, we as Americans want the quick fix."
Of course, working for a company that has linked its identity to bread can put Panera in a tricky situation in the current anti-carb climate. Gumpel says that bread is at the core of the company. However, Panera also does not want to miss out on the 20 percent of American who now at least dabble in gluten-free options.
Instead of taking gluten off the menu, Panera has made an effort to develop bread that overcomes customers' expectations. As a bakery-based chain with more than 1,900 locations, Gumpel says Panera employees "have the ability to get the message out. And the message is: good bread is good for you. And so, it's our responsibility to define what good bread is."
Good bread, according to Gumpel, is bread that is made with careful consideration of flour, water filtering and long-fermentation processes. It is bread made with whole, sprouted and ancient grains – all of which either currently appear on Panera's menu or Gumpel is developing for the chain.
Of course, not everyone is won over by Gumpel's pro-bread reasoning. That's why the chain now labels and highlights preexisting items that fit customers' myriad of dietary restrictions and preferences, like almond cookies that are naturally gluten-free.
The company's decision to add more labels to the menu goes hand in hand with Panera's ongoing attempts to transparently communicate and earn customers trust. In May, the company released a "No No List" of 150 artificial additives that have been removed from the menu or that the company planned to remove by the end of 2016. The company began posting calorie counts on menus in 2010, the first national brand to do so.
The range of options and the reputation for transparency has allowed Panera to have its bread and eat it too, maintaining perceptions as a healthy brand while keeping carbs front and center. Currently, the company is campaigning with a new slogan "Food as it should be," emphasizing its menu's health-conscious qualities.
"If you were to take the bread out of Panera, literally and metaphorically, you'd have a really good salad joint," says Gumpel. "If I was a competitor and I wanted to create a really good salad joint, I could probably do this. But we're a bakery… That's the care a baker would put in."