Why I Hate Panera Bread

Panera Soup & Sandwich
Panera chicken noodle soup. image from Flickr by john-pittsburgh

Panera Bread is the absolute worst.

I didn’t always feel that way. The first time I visited one was in Princeton, NJ, and I adored the bread bowl with French onion soup. It felt like an unimaginable luxury: a bowl made of bread! The vessel for deliciousness was also delicious, leaving diners drunk on carbs after stuffing their faces with a rapidly disintegrating bowl. The experience of eating at Panera was exhilarating.
When a Panera outpost finally opened near my house, I was in high school and didn’t have my driver’s license yet, so I only went on rare occasions. It was always a delicious treat. Although I eschewed the bread bowl on most visits, preferring to leave the restaurant not feeling like I’d eaten an elephant, I loved the “You Pick Two” combination. Often I’d indulge in a delicious dish of salad. Paired with creamy chicken soup, or my standby French onion, the meal was an affordable way to feel like a classy grown-up.
Then a few things happened that began to taint my love for Panera. One afternoon, I suggested to my mom that we eat there. That was the first mistake. My mom is an incredible cook who takes great pride in dismantling the culinary efforts of others. We both had French onion and after one spoonful of hers, she sniffed derisively and deemed the soup to be thickened with cornstarch.
“Is that bad?” I asked.
“Not necessarily,” she replied, her denial actually meaning that soup thickened with cornstarch is an abomination ranking right up there with genocide and shoulder pads in women’s suits.
To this day, I don’t really know why thickening soup with cornstarch is bad. I happen to make a corn-poblano chowder that’s healthy precisely because I thicken it with cornstarch and not cream. But that day planted the first seeds in my mind that Panera might not be the wood-paneled, lushly upholstered garden of dreams that I’d always imagined it to be.
Next, some of my friends ended up getting jobs at Panera and their reports from the kitchen were less than appealing. Soups, they claimed, came to each store in huge freezer bags, which were thawed and served as-is from the corporate kitchen. I’d always pictured my Panera meals crafted by cheerful elves slicing onions and tending to giant vats of soup with overgrown spoons, so this image came as a surprise. It pained me to imagine my Panera meal stripped of handcrafted love, born of a huge industrial factory.
When I moved to the desolate tundra of upstate New York for college, my opportunities to eat Panera were limited. But on the few occasions that I did indulge, I couldn’t help but notice that each bowl of soup was flavorless, overly salty, and greasy and left me feeling uncomfortably full. When I ordered salad, the leaves were wilted. Tasteless strips of chicken had the funny texture of sponges. Strawberries were still partially frozen. Fried noodle strips outnumbered everything else. I started to feel ambivalent about Panera.
A few months ago, I moved to a house that’s very close to a strip mall. There are many worthwhile vendors in that strip mall. To name a few, we’ve got Boardwalk Burgers, which serves Georgia grass-fed beef and double-fried spuds. Ansley Liquors, serving your booze with a side of hilarious hand-written signs. The list goes on. Unfortunately, occupying a storefront like a blight among the gems, is a Panera outpost.
I’ve gone there a few times recently, in need of a quick bite to eat. And somehow, no matter how hungry I am, I can’t bring myself to purchase anything at Panera. Reading the menu just makes me angry. For a cup of mediocre soup, they charge $4.79. Almost five dollars! For spongy old chicken and greasy croutons! Every time I’ve walked in and surveyed the menu, thinking I could maybe go for a bowl of soup, I quickly grow disgusted and leave without purchasing anything. 

Complaining is useless without providing an alternative solution. So here’s my alternative solution: you can make your own damn soup. It will taste infinitely better than anything from Panera, it doesn’t require as much effort as you think it would, and it’s practically free.

my chicken soup, practically free
Recipe to follow.
In the meantime, please don’t support Panera. They are taking advantage of people who don’t realize how inferior and overpriced their product is.
(However, their bread is pretty good. I’ll give them that).
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12 thoughts on “Why I Hate Panera Bread

  1. Pavlov

    I have never been a fan of Panera. I think once you get to a certain size, it becomes more about the bottom line and less about the products that got you there. It's an economy of scales, that I'm sure at one time were in their favor….now, this decidedly isn't so. Thanks for the story.

    Reply
  2. Sarah

    I've never been to a Panera, but feel the same way about another much beloved company where I live. They put so much cornstarch in their soup that the texture is goopy, not creamy. And making your own soup can be so cheap and easy! Your chicken soup looks great.

    Reply
  3. chiffonade

    I have eaten at Panera many times because it was near a place I worked. I really enjoyed it. I would not fool myself into thinking that these soups were made from scratch – Panera is a giant chain. In any case, I found them to be palatable as was the bread. (I always asked for the bread coolie…It's my favorite part.) Next time you make that corn & poblano chowder, try thickening it with masa harina. It thickens beautifully and really intensifies the corn flavor. The only really "bad" experience I had at Panera involved customers, not the food. Two idiots who were studying for a test were drilling one another on the subject matter. This would not have been so bad were the subject matter NOT Venereal Disease – including descriptions, symptoms, ooze and other conversation NOT appropriate for a place where people eat. I asked them to stop. They did.

    Reply
  4. J.K.

    Agreed! I'm positive it tasted better ten years ago. While I hate to be a food snob and look down my nose at chain restaurants… the fact is, the products are often inferior in both taste and quality.

    Reply
  5. J.K.

    That's such a good way to phrase it: goopy, not creamy. And when it sits in warming trays for hours and hours, the texture suffers all the more!

    Reply
    1. Cory

      Actually thickening with a slurry (cornstarch) doesn’t keep thickening when help hot. It becomes less and less thickened when held overtime

      Reply
  6. J.K.

    Their bread is awesome! Thanks for the tip re: masa harina. I'm definitely going to give that a try next time, and maybe make tamales with the rest. And that's super gross about the other Panera customers. There's a time and place to be talking about ooze, and that's not while eating creamy chicken soup from Panera! haha

    Reply
  7. Anonymous

    Well written! My elderly parents always want to meet at Panera. It's carb-overload; especially for breakfast when their choices are very limited. I keep trying to take them someplace better, but with no luck so far.Signed,Trapped at Panera

    Reply
  8. Jackie

    Try working for panera. It was the worst experience of my life. Almost everything comes frozen in a bag. The only things made fresh are the toppings for sandwiches and salads for the most part. Pastas, mac, meat, veggie blends for salads, etc all come frozen. The soup bags are put in a rethermilizer then sliced open and poured into the soup well. The dough is delivered nightly from a facility and baked. Another thing that’s frozen, the cupcakes.

    Reply
  9. Cory

    I’m not saying I love Panera but the ones I have been to have been pretty decent. I don’t think in any of their ads or commercials has Panera said they make their soups and things from scratch at on location. The only thing that might be close to this it the bread. For these huge franchises and companies, most of the time they make their soups and other goods at their main warehouse location(s) because of convenience. But this doesn’t mean that they don’t make it from scratch. Just because it is frozen doesn’t mean it’s low quality. And if you don’t like it so much just make your own food and don’t go there. It’s a lot cheaper and you are the only one accountable with the outcome. And your mom is wrong about soups thickened with cornstarch. It’s usually based on how you want the consistency and your preference cause it has a totally different mouthfeel and viscosity than thickening with a roux, cream or natural chemicals such as xanthan gum.

    Reply
  10. William W.

    I have just visited Panera for the first time. I took my dad out for Father’s Day. This particular Panera had just opened 2 weeks ago. When I looked at the PICK 2 menu, it was a bit confusing. Instead of saying “Look For This Symbol ‘⭓’ on ANY Menu Board and Pick 2 (or more) items”, they had listed instead the items you can have over the SOUP menu. (This made me assume the SOUP pricing included one other choice from another menu. [Now that I am no longer confused, I know better. This is an “å la carte” soup and sandwich shop.] Later, I asked another customer at the self-serve fountain if it was her first time there. She said “No.” and I then told her a got a little confused about the PICK 2. She told me that SHE had the same problem on her first visit. [HEY PANERA! You only get ONE chance to make a GOOD FIRST IMPRESSION!].

    The soup was “okay”. The ½ sandwich was a bit sparse in ingredients. You have to choose your own condiments for sandwiches at the self-serve station AFTER the sandwich is made. (I could have done better making the SAME sandwich at home.)

    Panera’s commercial said [Quote:] “When Panera began, we decided to get up every day and bake fresh bread from fresh dough in every bakery café…” [then goes on figuring out how they can be better.] So I gather from the commercial that they have great fresh bread (and they DO!). This is what really baffles me: When I ordered a PICK 2, I have my choice of apples, chips, or part of a French Baguette. I asked can I choose ANY OTHER bread? They told me I could buy a LOAF of anything else. WHAT?!? So, I am to understand (by the SAME commercial) [Graphic Quote:] “We Donate Our Leftover Baked Goods Every Night”. So instead of offering a choice (or at least a FEATURED DAILY variety) of bread with the meal, I must eat only French Baguette, while OTHER people can try the leftover varieties for FREE??? WOW! Smart UPSELLING Panera! (I can get French Bread almost anywhere.) It would have been nice to try a SLICE of another kind which might MOTIVATE me to buy an entire loaf instead of REQUIRING me to buy a whole loaf first before I could first taste it.

    Maybe I had this experience because the staff is new and didn’t explain things well to me? I wasn’t offer any samples (and I have no idea if they do or not). It cost me about $22 to feed TWO people [Soup (upgraded to bowl), ½ sandwich, french bread side, plus an add on of 2 pastries (BTW the pastries we had were Flippin’ DELICIOUS!)]. The dining area was nice and clean, the staff very friendly, and the ambience was okay.

    So my final assessment? I will return if I’m thirsty. The beverages (to me) seem to be the ONLY value of this place (outside of a clean, nicely decorated dining area). The soups? Not unless they start offering free add-ins like onions, tomatoes, or the like as a topping to some soups, I’m not likely to try them again. The soups are (like I said before) okay, but for the price I’m paying for the soup, I would like it to be MUCH BETTER than “okay”. Their Bakery? I will not turn down great baked goods. Panera could be better at bread offerings and samples of their baked goods. As for the MENU – I would suggest that they change the PICK 2 offer to include DIRECTIONS (especially your first-time visitors) [See Example in First Paragraph.]

    If things improve (menu, value & quality-wise), I MIGHT become a fan yet. It’s up to Panera to choose the direction.

    Reply
  11. Zooly

    GOODBYE, PANERA. YOU ARE JUST “SUBWAY WITH BAROQUE MUSIC” AND WAY HIGHER PRICES.

    Like you, we used to really enjoy Panera… ‘A nice sandwich bistro with Baroque music. “Fancy” salads, sandwiches and soups, for an OKAY price.

    ‘Went there yesterday and I am NEVER going back. Cashier made a mistake with my order (charged me twice for one thing; no biggie, mistakes happen), but proceeded to serve other customers and make me wait to get my money back. The lemon chicken soup was TERRIBLE (AND OVER $4.00! for a CUP). I bought mac-n-chee for my sons, and it was a tiny cup for over $4.50. They forgot one of the baguettes. The chicken in the salad IS oddly “spongey” as you say…. My daughter ordered the noodle bowl, which was like $8.50 for overpriced Ramen noodles. I was annoyed. For a basic (THE VERY BASIC) meal for a family of five with NO DRINKS, the cost was around $40. That’s just a lot for “fancy fast food”. There are no health benefits to eating at Panera. If I’ve got to clean my table and stack my dishes, I’ll pass. SUBWAY, I’m all yours. Lower calorie food, and my family can eat AND DRINK for less than $28.00

    Panera is destined to become the next “airport chain restaurant”, like Chili’s.

    Reply

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