Website Review:

This week’s Website Review is going to be a bit of stretch for me because I’ll be looking at a company I actually admire and whose services I use virtually every day. Panera Bread is a chain of bakery-café restaurants that sells breads, sandwiches, soups, salads, bakery items and, most importantly, this amazing frozen chocolate coffee drink. I tend to loathe in principal any corporate entity that boasts over $600 million in annual sales and three founders. So I’ll try to be as snarky as I can while trying to keep my enthusiasm wrapped up as tightly as one of their succulent dark chocolate croissants.

First, a point or two of disclosure is probably in order. I discovered Panera about ten years ago on a business trip to Pennsylvania. I spent two weeks having the cinnamon crunch bagel for breakfast, then loaded another several dozen onto my return flight. When I found the closest franchise to my home was only 100 miles away, I made not one but three trips to restock my stash. When a store finally was built in my hometown, I showed up the night before the official opening to discover the inexperienced cashiers needed to practice on their registers (“we’re not trained to accept cash yet,” one told me) and I walked out with a complimentary armload of baked goods.

Now, another one has opened within a five-minute drive of my office, so that’s where I spend my mid-morning break reading humor blogs. The wi-fi is free, there are plentiful electrical outlets, bread samples are given out next to the coffee urns and there’s usually a New York Times abandoned in a rack next to the trash can. I’ll typically buy a fountain drink out of guilt as much as thirst (though I’m not so responsible that I’d forego getting my frequent-customer card stamped toward a free chai tea latte), but recently I’ve become such a regular that the manager on duty doesn’t even charge me for the drink.

So you probably see some of my motivation here.

The corporate history page reveals that Panera began as the St. Louis Bread Company in 1981 in St. Louis, or else in 1987 in Kirkwood, Missouri, they’re not sure. It was largely a local concern until a complicated transaction in either 1993 or 1999 brought about the current name. St. Louis Bread was renovating its 20 cafes, which motivated Au Bon Pain Co. to purchase the company by selling all its own Au Bon Pain franchises to the Compass Group, then renamed itself Panera, except in Missouri where it’s still known as St. Louis Bread.

The company now operates or franchises 1,252 locations in 40 states and Canada employing almost 5,000 full-time employees. In 2005, it ranked number 37 on BusinessWeek’s list of “Hot Growth Food-Service Companies,” which I presume is a good thing unless there are only 38 total.

On the Company Overview page, we learn that the company has a mission statement and that it is, quite simply, “a loaf of bread in every arm.” This mission is also reflected in the company logo, which looks like a windblown Virgin Mary looking adoringly at a curiously oblong Baby Jesus cradled in her arms. Turns out, He’s a baguette.

This page also takes the opportunity to discuss the company’s philosophy of “bread leadership,” which it describes as the singular goal of making bread broadly available to consumers across America. I’d speculate that the creator behind this concept has never been along the entire back wall of any major grocery store, but instead spent his time working on noble language for the website. For example:

“Every day, at every location, trained bakers craft and bake each loaf from scratch, using the best ingredients to ensure the highest quality,” he writes. “Panera showcases the art and craft of bread making, helping customers truly appreciate and enjoy a great loaf by studying its crust, crumb and craft.” Except, perhaps, at the Rock Hill location near my home, where the display window to the bakery area was mysteriously walled off not too long ago. (So much for the next disgusting YouTube sensation.)

Of course there’s an online menu, both for bakery and café items, and a nutrition guide based on “standardized recipes, representative values provided by suppliers, analysis using industry standard software, published resources and/or testing conducted in accredited laboratories, expressed in values based on federal rounding and other applicable regulations.” In other words, if your sandwich guy slathers on a few extra tablespoons of smoky chipotle mayonnaise at your request, you may experience your own case of “federal rounding” despite what the official calorie count says.

Let’s take a look at a few specific products that Panera describes. Of their coffee, they say “we believe that making coffee requires the utmost attention,” not only to make sure olive oil isn’t accidentally substituted for water but to be sure nobody gets burned. They’ve recently started offering a line of breakfast sandwiches with a thick slice of Vermont natural white cheddar cheese, freshly baked Ciabatta bread and eggs “freshly cracked-to-order.” I’m not sure how the customized cracking makes that much difference in the taste, though I usually ask that mine be bounced off the ceiling just for the entertainment value. A healthier option for breakfast is the strawberry granola parfait, inspired by the 5-year-old daughter of the head chef. “He scrutinized everything in the granola – even the exact size of the coconut pieces,” though presumably he omitted her suggestion to place a Barbie head on the top.

Finally, I’ll mention some of my very favorite items. The sandwiches are excellent, especially the paninis (paninae?) and the Asiago roast beef, with creamy horseradish sauce. There are some great soups, including the forest mushroom soup, made with three flavorful types of mushrooms, none of which are fatal. And there’s possibly the best salad ever in the form of the Fuji apple chicken salad, with sweet apple juice and balsamic vinegar dressing, mixed field greens, pecans, gorgonzola and apple chips. It’s especially delicious when they remember to include the chicken.

My full assessment of the Panera website? The hell with it. Just go to the actual restaurant with a hearty appetite and an ability to withstand jazz saxophone Muzak, and you’ll enjoy yourself immensely.


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5 Responses to “Website Review:”

  1. planetross Says:

    You are making me hungry.
    I found your review unbiased and fair. You should be the new Solomon … or another island similar to that one. hee hee!

  2. Rocky Humbert Says:

    Your full assessment of the Panera website: “The hell with it.”

    Rocky’s assessment of the Panera product: “I’d rather have a Kelloggs Cherry Pop Tart than a Panera Cherry Artisan Pastry.”

    From the Panera Nutritional Info page:
    Calories=450. Fat=22g. Cholestrerol=70mg Sodium=340mg Sugar=24g

    From the Kelloggs Nutritional Info page:
    Calories=200. Fat=5g. Cholesterol=0mg. Sodium=160mg. Sugar=17g.

    To paraphrase a famous aphorism, “There’s no such thing as a free internet.”

  3. fitnessbarbie Says:

    Panera is awesome! They dont have any in Arizona, at least not near me so its been almost 2 years since i”ve eaten there!

  4. InActionMan IAM Says:

    I’ve never heard of this chain, but I’ll be sure to sample it when it comes to Europe. I tried putting Paris in their ‘locations’ menu, but I was told ‘There’s a problem with the information you submitted’, presumably because it isn’t an American state.

  5. crabdaddy Says:

    You right on all accounts! Panera is de one thing Crabdaddy miss about the states, dat and the kids!

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