Panera Bread Co. spends plenty of time and money updating its menu with seasonal sandwiches and salads. But now the bakery-cafe chain has found another source of product inspiration: the consumer.

Based on the success of a contest last year at its local chain, St. Louis Bread Co., Panera has rolled out its “sandwich showdown” nationwide in which the winning creation will land on the menus of all 1,600 Panera cafes across the country for a limited time.

In doing so, Sunset Hills-based Panera is joining the growing ranks of companies that use these sort of "crowd-sourced" contests to drum up ideas and engage consumers.

Lay's is offering a $1 million prize to the person who gets the most votes on Facebook for a new potato chip flavor. Domino's Pizza is asking the public's help in designing its next delivery truck. And Walmart is now selling some products online from its recent "Get on the Shelf" contest.

To be sure, few such submissions will produce groundbreaking products. Among the losing entries in Panera's local contest, for instance, were a strawberry cheese panini and a “peanut butter surprise” sandwich – the surprise being bacon.

But that's not the point. Retailers and restaurants are instead aiming for short-term marketing buzz and lasting brand loyalty.

“Consumer engagement is certainly a growing trend,” said Mary Chapman, director of product innovation for market research firm Technomic. “This is a way to take your engaged fans and make them feel they're part of the inner circle.”

Of course, some of these contests have been around in some form or another for awhile. Just think of the iconic Pillsbury Bake-Off, which is now in its 45th year.

But these days, examples are popping up all over the place.

“Do these kinds of contests equate to X percent sales increase – who knows?” Chapman said. “But there are long-term business benefits along the lines of building goodwill and loyalty among your existing customers and building a little bit of buzz and brand awareness among new customers.”

For Panera, one of the measures of success is the nearly 800 submissions it solicited from St. Louis area fans last year.

“We just always want to remain special to our customers,” said Kelli Nicholson, a regional marketing manager for Panera who now spearheads the contest. “We want to hear what you want on our menu.”

TASTE OF ST. LOUIS

Panera's “sandwich showdown” has its origins in a contest first held at the Taste of St. Louis several years ago.

Last year, it broadened the scope of the contest to solicit submissions from throughout the St. Louis region, which often serves as a test market for the chain.

The folks at Panera narrowed the field down to 20 finalists, which were then put up on a website and open to voting from the public. More than 18,000 votes were cast.

The top five vote getters then went before a panel of judges, which selected a “BLTT”, a modern twist (hence the extra “T”) on the BLT. Submitted by a nursing student from Marthasville, Mo., the sandwich was sold in about 48 local cafes in January. She also received a $2,500 cash prize and bagels for a year.

Last week, Panera began promoting a national contest that will come with a $10,000 prize and the promise of having the winning sandwich sold for a limited time at all of the chain's stores nationwide in the spring of 2013.

Rather than using judges to decide the final winner, the public will decide the victor among the field of finalists at http://www.tlc.com/Panera" href="http://www.TLC.com/Panera">www.TLC.com/Panera.

While Panera wants people to be creative, submissions must adhere to certain parameters. First, you have to choose from a list of about 150 ingredients that Panera already has in its cafes. And it should be something that would be easily created in the hectic environment of a cafe.

“If you have a sandwich with 50 steps in it, from an operations perspective, that is not going to work,” Nicholson said.

And she added it has to be something that will have a somewhat mainstream appeal. After all, not everyone wants peanut butter with bacon.

The company will be promoting the contest through TLC and Destination America, with on-air spots and online promos.

Submissions will be accepted through October 6. The public will get a chance to vote on the finalists from October 22 to November 11.

They are also looking for a charitable tie-in for some of the proceeds. The company ended up donating about $2,500 to St. Louis Children's Hospital out of the proceeds of the 12,000 BLTTs sold locally in January.

Last year, some contestants made YouTube videos to promote their creations. Others tested their sandwiches among friends and family members.

But the winner didn't end up doing any of that.

And, ironically, Lauren Day – who came up with the twist on the BLT – doesn't even like tomatoes.

The 24-year-old nursing student at East Central College entered the contest on a whim while she was studying inside a St. Louis Bread Co. cafe last year.

“I put it together in less than 10 minutes,” she said. “It was totally last minute.”

She looked up at the sandwich board, realized there was no BLT on the menu – so picked out ingredients from Panera's sandwich maker online that she thought looked good – tomato basil bread, apple wood smoked bacon, Gouda, chipotle mayonnaise, and fresh spinach and tomato.

When she got to the live judging event, she recalled how many of the other finalists talked about how they had been testing and refining their creations for months. Not her. It had been an especially stressful semester at school, so she hadn't actually made the sandwich up until then.

“I was like, 'I haven't tried my sandwich yet and I hope you'll like it,” she said.

She's had plenty of opportunities since then to taste it. She estimates she ate about 10 to 15 BLTTs at St. Louis Bread Co. in January.

Of course, she ordered them without the tomatoes.

Kavita Kumar covers retail and consumer affairs for the Post-Dispatch. She blogs on Consumer Central. On Twitter, follow her @kavitakumar and the Business section @postdispatchbiz.