CIA graduate Tom Gumpel ’86 likes to take a hands-on approach to his job. Wanting to figure out how to keep the flavor of brewed coffee as true as possible to its origins, the vice president of research and development for Panera did what any quality-obsessed baker would do—he went to the mountains of Costa Rica to take part in the coffee harvest.
When he’s not flying off to exotic locales or handling hundreds of e-mails from his home office, Tom is usually on the road, visiting Panera’s bakery cafés and suppliers, as well as sharing his insights with industry groups like the Research Chefs Association. “The traveling is great; getting out and meeting people across 45 states and 1,800 units,” Tom says. “I love getting that frontline feedback. I’ve always gathered my energy and ideas from the people around me and from the experiences I face day to day. My job is really incredible—I create my own schedule based on the vision of the organization.”
And Tom is very clear on the direction he wants to take Panera’s products. “My vision is ‘the magic of the bakery,’ which is the magic of who we are as a company,” he says. “We are deeply rooted as a bakery; it’s one of the ways Panera is special. So we’re going to put pressure on ourselves and our partners to raise the bar on our baked goods. It’s about creating great-quality products and being able to replicate that quality by using the best ingredients and techniques.”
In 2014, the company announced the opening of a new test baking facility in New Haven, CT. Several innovations are already planned to roll out across the chain this year. “We are one of the first restaurant chains in our industry to offer sprouted grain bread products to our customers,” says Tom. “This grain wasn’t available to purchase at scale when we started testing, but through relationships with our millers we’ve been able to grow the supply.”
The company recently released The Food Policy, a formal articulation of Panera’s long held values express by a commitment to clean ingredients, transparency, and a positive impact on the food system rooted in the craft. Panera also announced that it intends to remove artificial additives (color, flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives) from its baker-cafe food menu by the end of 2016.
A commitment to quality has been a constant throughout Tom’s career, as a successful baker and pastry chef, an instructor and associate dean for baking and pastry arts at the CIA, a Certified Master Baker, and as a member of the three-man American team that won the prestigious Grand Prize at the 1999 World Cup of Baking in Paris. He attributes much of his past and current success to the CIA. In 2010 he was recognized by Dessert Professional magazine as one of the country’s “Top Ten Bread Bakers.”
“My culinary and baking and pastry training comes into play every day at Panera,” Tom says. “It has emphasized to me how important the fundamentals are. ” Fundamentals such as, say, experiencing the food world hands-on.