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How Panera Got Its Customers to Cut Back on Soda

Sugar is public enemy No. 1. Consumers say that the sweet stuff is the top substance they are trying to reduce or eliminate from their diets, according to research firm NPD Group.

For the most part, they’re failing miserably. Consumption is up about 8% since 1970, in large part because sugar is in pretty much everything. About three-quarters of packaged foods and beverages in the U.S. contain some form of sweetener, according to a recent study in The Lancet.

And even when we make the choice to eat sugar, we’re terrible at estimating how much we’re actually putting into our bodies. Case in point: Fast casual restaurant chain Panera Bread commissioned a national survey last year that found that 99% of Americans do not know how much sugar is in a 20 fl. oz. serving of cola, with 83% underestimating the amount.

Last March Panera became the first national restaurant chain to started posting the amount of added-sugars on all self-serve beverages. At the same time, it launched a new set of six beverages that range in sweetness from no sugar at all to half the sugar of a soda.

Soda, which is the biggest source of added sugar in the American diet, was the “lowest-hanging fruit for us to take action on,” says Sara Burnett, Panera’s director of wellness and food policy.

Panera priced the new beverages the same as the soda fountain, even though their profit margins are not as good, deciding it was worth the investment. “I would say that the trend of conscious consumption of sugar,” Burnett says, “especially in something like a beverage, will be with us for quite a long while.”

Eighteen months later, Panera has seen soda sales decline 19% year over year, with diet soda seeing the biggest drop. Today, a third of the beverages consumed at the chain have shifted to no-added sugar, a third are moderately sweetened, and a third are soda.

“For us it was putting out a real option and real information,” says Burnett. “The consumer is smart. They make good decisions for themselves.”

The findings come as the Food and Drug Administration continues its indefinite delay of the launch of Nutrition Fact labels, an Obama administration initiative that had initially been planned to roll out this month. The labels included a line for added sugars on packaged foods, although restaurants would not have been required to include that information.

Asked if Panera would ever get rid of the soda fountain, Burnett said it wasn’t in the company’s plans right now. “We will go where the consumer leads us,” she says, “and there’s still a consumer demand for it—albeit a shrinking demand.”