Pros: excellent soups, great coffee drinks, non-fried fast food, free wi fi
Cons: bakery items are uninspired
I’m not a huge fan of eating at fast food restaurants, but sometimes it is necessary, especially when you are on long road trips with two children in the car. I loathe McDonald’s and will just not eat there, and sometimes we want something other than burgers, chicken strips, or a pizza. Panera Bread has become one of my favorite places to stop while we’re on the road; everyone can find something that they will eat, and they offer a different and healthier variety of fast food than many typical fast food chains.
I have been in Panera Breads in three different states within the past two weeks or so, and it’s a bit amazing to me how similar they all look. The interior colors are always warm golds and oranges; usually purple is worked into the color scheme as well. Both booths and tables are available for seating; my kids prefer the booths, so that is usually where we sit. Panera Breads always appear clean and friendly to me, although they are so standardized across the chain that they lose the potential for a “friendly local restaurant” feel.
Panera Bread is a fast food place, so expect to order at a counter and pick your food up yourself. There are two separate ordering areas; one for the bakery and breakfast and one for the sandwiches and soups. Coffee drinks may be ordered in either area. At the end of the meal, you bus your own table. No tipping is necessary or expected, although usually there is a tip cup available at the counter for the counter workers.
Food And Beverages
Panera Bread offers a range of pastries, bagels, breakfast sandwiches, and other goodies that might be enjoyed for breakfast – along with dessert type items like brownies which I would never eat for breakfast. I like the bagels okay – they have a nice selection of flavors (chocolate chip is a favorite one with my kids) – but if I’m just out looking to buy bagels, I’d prefer to buy from Bruegger’s. I like the selection of pastries, but I never eat those at breakfast either; I prefer something more savory in the morning. The breakfast sandwiches fit the bill. On my last visit, for $2.99, I had a nice egg and cheese sandwich on Ciabatta bread; my husband paid a bit more and had one made that also included bacon. We were both satisfied with our breakfasts.
I have tried Panera’s brownies and dessert items in the past, and I think they are good, but nothing special. I can easily bake something better myself in my own kitchen, for cheaper. If I wanted to buy a bakery item, I could also find better products in a local bakery.
Panera’s “café” offerings include a selection of soups, sandwiches, and salads. My personal obsession is the soup. I love soup, but I don’t cook well – and even my husband, who is a pretty good cook, isn’t a great soup chef. Panera offers a selection of soups that changes by the day; each day five or six are on offer. My favorite is probably the broccoli cheese soup, but I also enjoy the baked potato and the chicken wild rice soups. Austin ordered a bowl of summer corn chowder there the other day, which I believe is a seasonal selection; it was very good. I love that I can get any of the soups in a bread bowl for a bit more money… soup and bread is a classic combination, and I love the bread inside the bowl after it has been saturated with soup. Yum!
When I go to Panera Bread, I usually go for the soup, but I have enjoyed their Strawberry Poppyseed Salad in the past. Other salad selections include Fuji Apple Chicken, Asian Sesame Chicken, and their new Chopped Chicken Cobb salad. The sandwich offerings include a Turkey Artichoke, Chicken Bacon Dijon, and a Tomato & Mozzarella Sandwich. I have not eaten any of these myself, but my husband enjoys them.
My kids have moved on from the “kids” menu at Panera to become soup fanatics, but they do also have the option of a grilled cheese, a peanut butter and jelly, or a “kid’s deli” – a meat and cheese sandwich on white or whole grain bread. This gives my kids options that are different than their usual fast food choices; not only that, the Panera offerings are healthier. While the calorie count may be similar, I’m happy when my kids are eating anything that isn’t a corndog or chicken strips!
Panera Bread offers a nice menu of coffee and other specialty drinks. On one recent visit, samples of the frozen lemonade and the strawberry smoothies were being given out. I loved the frozen lemonade – although it really is just lemonade that is frozen into a nice slush. Julia liked the strawberry smoothie enough to drink most of it, but I tried it and found it kind of mediocre. This may have something to do with the fact that it is a low-fat product! I have seen people drinking the mango smoothie and I definitely want to try that on my next visit.
In terms of coffee and tea, the selection is also good. I have enjoyed a hot chai latte on several occasions, and I would highly recommend that. My husband and I decided to split an iced mocha on our last visit and we were both in awe of it. Beware, though, that the iced mocha cannot be made without caffeine. I have had their hot café mochas multiple times and those are available in a decaffeinated form – and they are quite delicious.
Other offerings include light and dark roast coffees, decaffeinated coffee, hazelnut coffee, and espresso drinks like cappuccino and lattes. Hot chocolate is available for the kids, or if you’re not a coffee or tea person, but you’d like a hot beverage.
Panera Bread also advertises that is is available for catering larger groups. I saw offerings for “soup for a group” as well as “coffee for a group” on the boards where the foods and prices were listed. I’m sure they also sell their other offerings for groups as well.
I can generally get lunch for myself at Panera Bread for between five and ten dollars. My penchant for buying coffee drinks, which run between three and four dollars, is what keeps Panera Bread from being a cheap stop for me. I have successfully fed myself and my two kids lunch for around fifteen dollars at Panera Bread, but that is when I stick to the healthier food only – no desserts, smoothies, or coffee drinks. Panera Bread does cost a bit more than some fast food places, but I really prefer the selection there – and the fact that nothing is fried.
There are a few other things that I appreciate about Panera Bread. The bathrooms are generally clean, if not spotless. They offer free wireless internet access, which I have found really useful when on the road. And they do go out of their way to clearly mark which of their products are low fat and which are vegetarian.
Panera Bread is one of the few fast food restaurants that I am happy to visit. I love their soups and their coffee drinks, and I’m always relieved to see my kids eating something that isn’t fried. 4 stars.