José Andrés and WCK Partner With Panera, a Fast Food His Family Actually Eats

During the 2021 equivalent of a press junket, when José Andrés appeared in a spotlight but was otherwise shrouded in darkness on a Zoom call from southern Spain, the chef and humanitarian who inspires saintly prayer candles wasted little time turning on the charm. When asked why he is now lending his name to Panera Bread, beyond the obvious reason that the St. Louis-based sandwich, soup, and salad chain is pledging to raise money for his hunger-fighting nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, Andrés references his three daughters.

“I let my daughters go freely,” he tells Eater. “They are always like, ‘Okay, which big chains can we go?’ Panera is one of them. Always has been.” By the end of a brief call with Eater, Andrés had corrected himself to make the anecdote more endearing. It’s his daughters who let him eat there.

This week, Panera announced an agreement with Andrés to promote its efforts to address food insecurity. As part of the deal, Panera is promising to send $1 from every sandwich it sells at U.S. stores from March 23 through March 31 to World Central Kitchen (fine print time: the contribution will be capped at $100,000, and only Panera LLC location are participating, which amounts to about half of the 2,119 bakery cafes it operates stateside). Panera also donated meals to Martha’s Table yesterday to ring in the announcement. The company says it already partners with more than 3,500 food banks and pantries annually.

A report from the D.C. Food Policy Council estimated that 16 percent of the city’s population was food insecure last year, up from 10.6 percent before the pandemic. Many residents, including a community of laid-off restaurant workers, have had to turn to relief programs and mutual aid organizations for help. As part of its #ChefsForAmerica program, World Central Kitchen says it has distributed $150 million to more than 2,500 restaurants while providing 36 million meals across 400 cities.

Andrés, it turns out, was already in talks with Panera about starring in a short film for its Food Interrupted series before the COVID-19 pandemic. He says Panera came through with an unsolicited $250,000 donation to World Central Kitchen in March 2020. “I was like, really?” Andrés says. “Did they send a check in the wrong area?” That money helped fund the disaster relief trips that took him everywhere from the uncharacteristically frozen tundra of Texas to the shores of Beirut. He’s been to nine countries during the pandemic, he says.

In one of the YouTube clips Panera released this week, viewers can watch Andrés talk about feeding people in emergencies. In another video, Andrés collaborates with Claes Petersson, a Panera executive holds the lofty title of Chief Food Innovation Officer, to make a veggie sandwich with fresh and sun-dried tomatoes.

Andrés says Panera originally had a plan for him to meet with Petersson at the company’s test kitchen in Boston to develop a sandwich made out of gazpacho ingredients that would be sold in stores. Coronavirus concerns nixed that idea for now, but Andrés is hopeful his name will be on a Panera sandwich in the future.

“At the end this was much more realistic than trying to build something new,” Andrés says. “In emergencies, a plan never helps. If you have a plan, usually nothing goes along to plan.”

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