Panera Bread's cafe menu needs to rise to the level of its bread
When I'm walking into a Panera Bread , it's hard for me to remember that I'm not headed into Starbucks. There's the same wafting aroma of espresso and suburban MILF perfume; the same mellow, snoozy music; and the counter employees are so gleeful I wonder if they've been threatened by tasers.
J. Wohletz Fresh fruit pastries at Panera Bread.
But then, Panera Bread could be the Starbucks of bakeries. The stores are uniform, ubiquitous and popular, with solid baked goods and light-meal breakfast/lunch/diner items that are passably good. But there are better -- and definitely worse -- possibilities out there.
J. Wohletz Panera Bread.
Panera's began life as Le Bon Pain Co. in 1981, when Louis Kane and Ronald M. Shaich started the first one in Kirkwood, Missouri. In 1993 the company acquired the St. Louis Bread Company; in 1999 Le Bon Pain sold off its current stores, was renamed Panera Bread, subsequently bought out Paradise Bakery & Café, and today operates 1,591 company-owned and franchise-operated bakery/cafes in 41 states and Ontario, Canada.
Panera is generally seen as being a healthy chain of restaurants, and it was in the vanguard of the movement to show nutritional information on all of its menu items. I've always found it interesting that a bakery-based restaurant like this one has managed to market itself as a bastion of nutrition -- props to Panera's marketing teams past and present for making gobbing down baguettes and cream cheese-studded pastries seem like no-harm-no-foul.
I went to the Panera Bread at 3700 Quebec Street, and although it was during prime-time brunch on a Saturday, the chow lines were short. Panera has three counters: one for breakfast and bakery items, one to order meals, and a small middle counter for such specialty coffee orders as espresso drinks and frozen coffee creations. The breads and pastries looked plenty tempting -- beautiful baguettes with bubby crusts and light, buttery sweets with shiny-glazed fresh fruit toppings. But I focused on lunch, ordering lemon chicken orzo soup in a bread bowl with a Caesar salad, penne Bolognese with a Greek salad, lemonade and a chocolate chip cookie. Baguette hunks were included with the meals, so I was all set.
J. Wohletz Lemon chicken orzo soup in a bread bowl.