Food at Panera that isn't as fresh as you think

Panera Bread has definitely been at the forefront of the "fast casual" movement. It started as a small brick-and-mortar cookie store in Boston in 1980 (that went on to join forces with Au Bon Pain and St. Louis Brad Company), and now has over 2,300 bakery-cafes across the U.S. and Canada. The brand has always promoted itself as having healthier, customizable options, and its recent emphasis has been on guaranteeing only "clean foods," which according to the restaurant chain's website translates to "no artificial preservatives, sweeteners, flavors and no colors from artificial sources."

But does "clean" always equate to "fresh?" In the case of Panera, not necessarily. It's understandable that a company serving a uniform set of menu items on this grand of a scale has to get crafty with efficient mass production. In other words, some use of a freezer is inevitable — just because the completed sandwich they serve isn't thawed, that doesn't meant the ingredients they used to make it weren't. Here's a rundown of the foods served at Panera that might not be as fresh as you thought they were.

Bread dough

While it is true that the crew at Panera does bake their bread on site, the dough isn't actually made from scratch at that same dine-in location. Prepared dough actually arrives every day via truck from a source close to the restaurant, and it may or may not be frozen. 

According to a former employee who spoke to Refinery 29 about her experience slinging sandwiches at the chain, frozen dough came "from a town about an hour away" from the Panera where she worked (though the editors did note that some Panera policies and practices have changed since then). Similar claims were made by a Redditor claiming to be a former Panera manager for the chain, who confirmed the dough came already prepared. "Dough is sent fresh nightly from a regional facility and baked fresh every night for the next day," they said. 

Maybe it's frozen, maybe it's not, but assuming the dough is frozen as soon as it's kneaded to perfection, that's about as fresh as you can get for bread at a restaurant like this… just still not completely fresh.

Coffee cake and cupcakes

If you're a cake purist and want it from a bakery that's serving up a masterpiece they've created from the initial creaming of butter and sugar to the presenting of the iced final product on a platter for your gawking, you might not find what you need at Panera. Cakes, whether it's of the coffee variety or the traditional what-you-picture-when-you-picture-cake form, are not made in-house at the bakery-cafe. 

An alleged Panera employee shared on a Reddit thread, "Cupcakes and coffee cake are definitely just thawed…" So the worker is confirming that not only are these items not made on-site but, they're also not even baked on-site. Unlike the bread, which goes from dough to bread in the restaurant's ovens, the coffee cakes and cupcakes are just thawed from a frozen state. Not sure if freezing cake batter in order to cook it somewhere else is even a thing, but if it is, Panera isn't doing it, so you might want to get your fresh cupcake fix elsewhere.

Soup

No matter what Panera soup is your favorite, it's safe to say that it has 100 percent been frozen prior to your consumption. In a Reddit AMA started by a supposed ex-Panera worker, the soup's un-fresh status was confirmed when the Redditor said, "The soups are made at a factory/plant/etc, flash-frozen, shipped to us, and we thaw it out in what's called a thermalizer, essentially a soup-thawer." In the another thread, a Panera insider claiming to be a former manager at the chain claimed, "Everything except the bread and produce is basically precooked. They have a company that makes the soups and then they get sent frozen." And yet another former employee who spoke to Refinery 29 described the restaurant's soup protocol as, "Soup arrived in giant bricks that were heated in a hot water bath in the back of the house."

Brick or no brick, the soup at Panera is pretty legit so even if they're not whipping it up from scratch in a giant pot in the back prior to serving, it doesn't seem to affect the taste too much.

Oatmeal

Oatmeal is usually a safe bet from a fast-casual chain if you're looking for a grab-and-go breakfast that's pretty hard to screw up. The Panera oatmeal might not be the best choice, however. Just like several other items on the menu, it arrives at the restaurant pre-cooked and frozen. For what it's worth though, the nuts and strawberries you can add to the oatmeal are indeed fresh.

The oatmeal's lack of freshness might be more obvious than the company realizes. A TripAdvisor reviewer who didn't take too kindly to their order of Panera's steel cut oatmeal wrote, "The oatmeal was basically a clump, dry mess. Never in my life had I ever had something like this from ANY restaurant claiming to offer oatmeal. I mean, come on. Even Starbuck's and Peet's Coffee can get this right. I'd try something other than oatmeal for breakfast at this place." Is the practice of freezing, defrosting, and then reheating affecting the quality and taste of Panera's oatmeal that much? When a recipe contains little more than oats and water, it's hard to imagine another culprit.

Pretty much all the other baked goods

Welp, things are definitely not looking very fresh on the pastry and baked goods front at Panera. Another former employee spilled some secrets to MyRecipes in 2017 and revealed that pretty much any baked good that isn't bread or a bagel is simply thawed or reheated at the restaurant, not made or baked there. The Panera crew alum said, "Panera Bread likes to tout how their products are all freshly baked by trained staff. In reality, a large amount of the bakery products come in frozen and are tossed in the oven when needed… the majority of goods in the bakery case were created elsewhere, shipped in a freezer, and reheated."

The name of the restaurant is Panera Bread, not Panera Bakery, so maybe we should cut them some slack on the ol' no-pastries-made-from-scratch front. Does the fact that their cookie dough is made elsewhere make their cookies any less delicious? Not in our book.

Some salad toppings and sandwich meats

In a thread complaining about how overpriced Panera is, a Redditor saying they'd previously been a manager at the chain jumped in to defend their former employer, saying, "Panera is overpriced for sure, but their foods have no preservatives and are definitely higher quality than any other fast foods…" The former worker went on to specify exactly which ingredients come frozen — and it's actually ones you might have as part of your salad fixings or on your sandwich. The Redditor wrote, "Some foods come frozen, but are high quality in terms of ingredient sourcing… toasted turkey, steak, edamame, corn, etc." 

While the meat in the sandwiches might have been previously frozen, it's worth noting that the sandwiches are still always made fresh. Another alleged former Panera worker chimed in on the thread to validate that, writing, "… all hot sandwiches at Panera are assembled to order and then pressed on a panini grill."

And as for salads, much of the produce, such as avocado, romaine, kale, and spring greens, comes in fresh daily, so that's comforting. But is it even possible to freeze lettuce? If it was, Panera just might try it. 

Feta cheese

Speaking of salad toppings, there is one in particular that you might want to steer clear of at Panera. Feta cheese is apparently not the chain's strong suit. A proclaimed former Panera worker started an AMA thread on Reddit and had this to say when someone asked about what to never order: "Anything with feta. I have accidentally served multiple customers moldy feta because I thought a piece of gorgonzola just slipped its way in… and then another piece… and then… the bottom of the pan is blue/green!" Say no more, this was enough to convince us to always ask them to hold the feta when we're ordering at Panera.

Thankfully the menu items are all customizable, and the risk of moldy cheese is definitely a reason to take advantage of that flexibility. Frozen instead of fresh is one thing, but mold is about as far from fresh as it gets.

Mac and cheese

Panera serves up some legit mac and cheese variations but to be clear, those variations are prepared by an off-site chef and not in the actual restaurant where you dine or take out your cheese-laden carbs. In a Reddit thread AMA started by someone who says they're a current Panera worker, we learned the skinny on the cheesy mac: "The mac and cheese for example comes into the store premade and frozen in a bag and it is heated either in boiling water or the microwave if need be." And a former Panera employee who spoke to Refinery 29 also confirmed that the mac and cheese shows up frozen in "individually portioned bags."

Okay, so the savory pasta side dish here isn't made in the kitchen behind the counter where you order. But what is this, Italy? Considering that this is a country that buys cheap macaroni and cheese in a box with dry noodles and powdered cheese, is Panera's mac and cheese not being made fresh in their kitchens really that big of a deal? We think not. 

Lemonade and green tea

When thinking about what is and isn't fresh at a restaurant, you don't tend to factor in beverages. Panera may make you think twice about that, though. A contributor to MyRecipes who used to work at Panera explained, "You might end up disturbingly close to sipping mold if you order lemonade or green tea from one of the circulating drink dispensers (usually kept behind the counter). While the drink station's soda machine and tea dispensers are cleaned nightly, the lemonade and green tea dispensers are cleaned maybe monthly. This being the case, black mold builds up between the dispensing tube and the cooling system." Double yuck.

The former employee went on to say that while the mold might not technically be touching the liquid you drink, its proximity to the actual beverage is still extremely icky and questionable. Lesson learned — definitely be mindful of ordering your beverage from the drink machines behind the counter if you want to ensure it's fresh (AKA "not moldy") fare.

The eggs are legit though

It's worth pointing out, despite a lengthy list of menu items that maybe aren't as fresh as you think, Panera does have one item that is perhaps a restaurant novelty when you're talking about freshness. It does not mess around when it comes to eggs. In fact, it "petitioned the FDA to establish a clear definition for the term 'egg'" when it's listed on a menu. According to a 2018 press release from the restaurant chain, "Panera's standard sandwiches feature '100 percent real eggs,' which at Panera, means freshly prepared, cracked shell eggs and/or egg whites with no additives."

The reason Panera is so uppity about its eggs is because it researched other top restaurant chains and discovered that several were claiming to serve fresh eggs when in reality the "eggs" in their products had "at least five ingredients, often more." We salute Panera's mission to #RespectTheEgg (their hashtag, not ours), and definitely give them props for calling out other places for their faux egg concoctions. Now when will they start labeling menu items as "previously frozen"?