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Vegetarian Fiesta Con Queso Soup battles staple selections with winning combination of cheese, spices and vegetables

Item: Vegetarian Fiesta Con Queso Soup
Rollout: November 2004 to January 2005
Company: Panera Bread
Headquarters: Richmond Heights, Mo.
Units: 741 bakery-cafes
Region: 35 states
Description: 8 ounces; roasted bell and Anaheim chile peppers simmered with onion, carrot, corn and tomato in a rich cheese sauce spiked with cumin, garlic, cilantro and hot-pepper sauce

Developer: John Taylor, research and development for the customer experience

The Red Sox and the Yankees were not the only intense rivals last fall. At Panera Bread a limited-time offering soup sold well enough to compete neck-and-neck with the chain's year-round best seller, Broccoli Cheddar Soup.

Vegetarian Fiesta Con Queso Soup was the kind of soup, says Panera's John Taylor, "that really kind of gave you that warm feeling inside."

Since the soup a blend of vegetables spiked with Southwestern seasonings and hot sauce in a rich cheese-sauce base left the lineup, customers have clamored for its return. Taylor, who's in charge of research and development for the customer experience at Panera Bread, developed the soup with a vendor partner as a special that ran from November 2004 until January 2005.

At Panera the average guest check is $7, and Scott Davis, senior vice president and chief concept officer for Panera, says there are times of the year when soup accounts for more than 20 percent of sales. The soup menu revolves around a small core of year-round soups offered daily and an additional selection of soups that rotate in and out, depending on the day of the week. About five times a year, the company rotates in two specialty flavors for a typical run of a couple of months before they are replaced by the next limited-time offerings.

During its brief time on the Panera menu, Vegetarian Fiesta Con Queso Soup was the No. 1- or No. 2-selling soup on its rotation days. It sold for between $2.99 and $3.19, depending on the market.

A key to the soup's success is that it "hit" on several fronts, Taylor says. Panera tries to make sure the menu always includes a cream-based soup, a low-fat offering, a "full-flavored" soup and a vegetarian choice. While not a low-fat soup, the Vegetarian Fiesta Con Queso Soup fits the other three categories, Taylor says.

"When we tasted this the first couple of times," remarks Taylor, "we felt, gosh, we had the best of both worlds. We had an excellent soup, but it was also vegetarian, which sometimes is a challenge."

A key consideration in developing that type of soup "is always trying to get the flavor combined with the heat just right," Davis says. "Can you give it enough heat but yet not too much where it turns people off?" Another challenge, he adds, is "understanding the cream-based soup, how well it was going to hold up in the environment, under heat and not burn up and lose its consistency over time."

In developing new soups Panera works closely with manufacturing partners in a process that typically takes four to six months and involves consumers. Test-marketing gradually expands in scope from a single restaurant to several locations before a systemwide rollout.

The Fiesta Con Queso soup was prepared by an outside vendor and delivered cold-packed to bakery-cafe locations, making on-site preparation a simple matter of reheating and maintaining proper temperature controls.

"Once we start to exceed 180 degrees [Fahrenheit], we would tend to have problems.

That heat is a little too intense, so we'll keep it at 160 degrees [Fahrenheit]," Taylor says.

He goes on to say that the soup did not linger on the line, and separation was never an issue because it sold so well.

The names given to Panera soups also get careful deliberation. "One of the reasons it was pretty successful had to do with us setting the right expectation with the name," Taylor says. The team decided against the working name of "Cream de Tortilla Soup."

"I think there would have been quite a few people who wouldn't have even tried it," Taylor says. "I don't think that's such a real friendly name. 'Con queso' I can relate to, yet by itself, it sounds like a dipping sauce." So, "vegetarian" and "soup" got added to clarify the product, and "fiesta" added an element of fun, he explains.

Before coming to Panera about a year ago, Taylor was with Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Market, a natural and organic retailer.

"That experience allowed me to better understand the vegetarian customer and the natural customer and develop some technique," he says. "You know, just because something is vegetarian or vegan doesn't mean that it doesn't taste any good."

Davis says stellar sales for the Vegetarian Fiesta Con Queso Soup almost guarantee that it will rotate back into the store's menu at some point.

"You always think [a new menu item] is going to be a big winner, no matter what," he says. "But you're always surprised when something comes along and really rivals one of the staple groups. You're always surprised when something comes along and takes on cream of broccoli."


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