Tag Archives: panera

Alternatives to Panera Bread (Which I Still Hate)

Locro de papas, de mi casa

Since I posted about how much I despise Panera Bread, I’ve gamely attempted to try their food again. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked. Every time I go in there, resolute in my decision to finally slurp up a bowl of soup, the indignity of it all just overwhelms me. I cannot pay almost five dollars for a ladleful of mediocre soup. For five dollars, I can make my own damn soup – five times as much as Panera’s serving offers – and it will taste infinitely better. So I leave, empty belly intact.

Last night, Xavier and I went to Hartsfield International Airport to hang out for a while. Not because we’re terrorists getting the lay of the land, or because we particularly enjoy riding Marta. It was because our friends were in town. Catae and Andre had a layover en route to their fabulous vacation, and we were very excited to see them for the first time since the summer.

It was a little bit like that movie “The Terminal,” I’d imagine, although I’ve never seen the movie. Xavier and I couldn’t go past security without boarding passes, so our friends had to come out to the atrium. After a while of chatting out there, we were somewhat hungry. There has been a lot of noise lately about airport food increasing in quality. Atlanta is apparently adding fine-dining restaurants for classy travelers. When you’re stuck in the atrium, though, these places are not options. After surveying the fast-food options, it became clear that the only reasonable place for us to dine was the Atlanta Bread Company.

The Atlanta Bread Company is a local rip-off of Panera Bread. It’s nearly identical from the business model (order at counter while being deluged with display of shiny pastries) to menu (you-pick-two served with a chunk of baguette ring a bell?). I was hungry and the only other option was Panda Express, so I decided to swallow my pride, hoist my sense of wonder, and check it out.

I settled on the you-pick-two, and the only obvious choices were French onion soup and a California avocado sandwich. The cashier seemed a little confused throughout the ordering process, so it was hardly surprising when my sandwich came out on the bread that Xavier wanted, and Xavier’s bread was completely wrong. Regardless, I opened my mouth and tried to judge the food on its own merit.

The baguette served with the meal was flavorless and cottony. There was no textural contrast between crust and crumb. Winner? Panera.

French onion soup? Passable. A little too salty, a little light on onion. It had body, but not too much. The Asiago cheese garnish, like that at any fast-food cafe, melted into the broth and stuck to the bottom of the bowl. Winner? There is none. Panera Bread and Atlanta Bread Company have tied.

My favorite part of the meal was the California avocado sandwich, a vegetarian option. It did not arrive in the condition it had been promised to me. Onion-tomato foccacia had been replaced with Asiago cheese bread, and although I’d requested no onions, a few limp rings lingered between the tomato and provolone slices. But the avocado  was plentiful and perfectly ripe, and its flavor cut perfectly with dill mayonnaise. This bread, unlike the baguette, was perfect. Winner? Atlanta Bread Company. By a long shot.

So in the bracket battle of chain cafe/bakeries, Atlanta Bread Company, because in what could have been a tie, ABC came out on top by feeding me an entire avocado smashed between two delicious slices of bread. A perfectly ripe avocado can beat pretty much anything edible, except perhaps bacon.\

I’m willing to review other establishments that are like Panera or Atlanta Bread Company. Anyone have ideas?

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).