Big Changes Are Coming To Panera In 2024

Panera is unveiling a new menu on April 4. You'll see four new salads, four new sandwiches, and, for all you bacon aficionados out there, the Bacon Mac & Cheese is graduating to official menu status. But it's not just new items getting all the attention. Enhancements are coming to 12 classic sandwiches and salads, including the Green Goddess Chicken Salad, the Fuji Apple Chicken Salad, and the Spicy Buffalo Chicken Melt. And for those of us watching our wallets without wanting to skimp on flavor, participating cafes are introducing a new selection of menu items for under $10.

While the new menu is generating a lot of buzz, that's not the only big change coming to Panera in 2024. Less glamorous changes are also in the works. Panera, long hailed as a leader in its commitment to serving antibiotic-free meat, might be dialing back on some of its standards. And while frozen food has always been part of Panera's kitchen strategy, the restaurant may be relying on frozen foods more and more and talented in-café bakers less and less. All the while, the saga of Panera's Charged Lemonade continues to squeeze out headlines involving lawsuits. While this refreshing beverage is sticking around for now, don't be surprised if you find it playing hard to get behind the counter. So, let's break bread — and maybe a salad leaf — and dive into the evolving world of Panera in 2024.

Four new sandwiches

Loosen your belt buckles! Panera is rolling out four new hearty sandwiches with an updated menu launching on April 4. For those who think bacon is a love language, the new menu includes not one, but two sandwiches that'll make your heart skip a beat. Meet the Chicken Bacon Rancher and the Tomato Basil BLT. The Chicken Bacon Rancher features applewood smoked bacon, grilled chicken, aged white cheddar, and ranch dressing on black pepper focaccia. As for the Tomato Basil BLT, enjoy applewood bacon mingling with the garden-fresh flavors of crisp mixed greens and vine-ripened tomatoes. It's topped off with garlic aioli, salt, and pepper, sandwiched between slices of tomato basil miche. In Panera's effort to offer more menu options at various price points, the Tomato Basil BLT will sell for under $10 at participating cafes.

But don't let the bacon duo steal the show before you meet the other two new sandwiches — the Toasted Italiano and the Ciabatta Cheesesteak. The Toasted Italiano is like a trip to Europe without needing a plane ticket. It combines Black Forest ham, soppressata and provolone, romaine, red onion, sliced pepperoncini peppers, garlic aioli, and Greek dressing on Panera's toasted French baguette. The Ciabatta Cheesesteak, as its name suggests, is all about the cheese and steak — tender marinated sliced steak, provolone, garlic aioli, caramelized onions, and zesty sweet Peppadew™ peppers on ciabatta. It's Panera's take on the Philly Classic.

Bacon Mac & Cheese becomes official

When it comes to ranking the best fast food mac and cheese, Panera Bread's velvety treasure is high on the list. It's a bowlful of tender shell pasta in a blend of rich cheeses, including tangy aged white cheddar sauce. Indeed, that white cheddar might be what elevates Panera's version to such a high-achieving cheesy masterpiece. If you're trying to create a copycat Panera Mac & Cheese, high-quality cheddar is key.

And what might make cheddar even better? How about bacon? Starting April 4, Panera is introducing a new twist on its comfort food classic by adding applewood smoked bacon into the mix, with the aptly named Bacon Mac & Cheese.

Bacon Mac & Cheese is by no means a new idea. It made a cameo back in 2018 for customers using Panera Delivery. And for years, savvy customers have been customizing their Mac & Cheese by adding bacon. But it's time to officially welcome Bacon Mac & Cheese to the menu, so get ready to dive in fork-first.

Four new salads

Starting April 4, Panera Bread is tossing up its menu with a fresh batch of greens. Two of the new salads pledge their allegiance to ranch. The Southwest Chicken Ranch starts with romaine tossed in ranch, adds grilled chicken with chipotle aioli, and tops it all off with avocado, grape tomatoes, fire-grilled corn, cilantro, and blue corn tortilla chips. Meanwhile, the Ranch Cobb Salad struts its own ranch flair — romaine and crisp mixed greens tossed in ranch dressing play host to grape tomatoes, pickled red onions, applewood smoked bacon, feta, and a hard-boiled egg.

Panera's also mixing up the salad menu with some grains — a whole grain blend of farro and red rice. The Balsamic Chicken Greens with Grains combines that grain blend with romaine and mixed greens tossed in balsamic vinaigrette. It's all topped with cucumbers, pepperoncini peppers, avocado, feta, pumpkin seeds, and a touch of Green Goddess dressing.

The Mediterranean Chicken Greens with Grains gathers that hearty grain blend, along with romaine and mixed greens tossed in Greek dressing, grilled chicken, hummus, feta, red onions, sweet Peppadew™ peppers, cucumbers, and a dash of Panera's shawarma seasoning. Expect that shawarma seasoning to add bold flavor. Shawarma, a popular Middle Eastern street food with tender meat in pita bread, gets its distinct flavor from the seasoning, which often includes cinnamon, cumin, ginger, coriander, allspice, turmeric, and black pepper. Panera's rendition is set to infuse big flavor into the new Mediterranean Chicken Greens with Grains.

Enhanced classic favorites

As part of Panera Bread's April 4 menu update, a dozen classics will receive recipe updates to add even more flavor. The list includes five salads and seven sandwiches. The salads slated for enhancement include the Green Goddess Chicken Cobb Salad, Strawberry Poppyseed Chicken Salad, Caesar Salad with Chicken, Greek Salad with Chicken, and Fuji Apple Chicken Salad. The Fuji Apple Chicken Salad might be the underdog, once voted as Panera's least favorite salad. It's possible it loses some love because its distinct ingredients — pecans, Gorgonzola, and apple chips — might deter some diners. But who knows, maybe a recipe upgrade will launch a good comeback story and bring the Fuji Apple Chicken Salad some more fans.

Some of the best sandwiches at Panera are also receiving updates. Look for enhancements to the Grilled Chicken & Avo BLT, Turkey & Cheddar Sandwich, Smokehouse BBQ Chicken, Spicy Buffalo Chicken Melt, Bravo Club, Chipotle Chicken Avo Melt, and Toasted Frontega Chicken. Fans will be happy to see the Toasted Frontega Chicken staying on the menu. The sandwich has had a tumultuous history at Panera. It once vanished from the menu, but after serious public outcry, Panera brought back the fan-favorite sandwich. Let's hope fans enjoy the recipe adjustment. But just in case, there's always a copycat recipe for Panera's Toasted Frontega Chicken, which is based on the older version.

Commitment to value

Panera Bread doesn't tend to make the cut for any list of best fast food value menus. Since Panera's early days, the restaurant has tailored its menu to diners who don't mind shelling out a few extra bucks for quality food and ingredients. But that focus may be shifting.

Panera knows customers are tired of price hikes and looking for value in 2024. In response, many restaurants are looking to add more affordable options. Taco Bell kicked the year off with a $3-and-under value menu and, according to Business Insider, sales were even better than expected. Now, comparing Panera to Taco Bell is a bit like comparing Fuji Apple Chicken Salads to orange-dusted Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Tacos. So, don't expect Panera to offer a $3 menu anytime soon. But with the new menu coming April 4, Panera is aiming to be more value-oriented.

Panera is committing to menu options at a variety of price points and plans to offer more value with enhanced portions. Many salads and sandwiches will have more chicken and steak per bite than in the past. The new menu includes options for under $10 at participating cafes. Where available, the options under $10 will include some of Panera's new items, such as the Tomato Basil BLT, Ranch Cobb Salad, and Mediterranean Greens with Grains. Tasty options that are easier on your bank account — who says you can't have your (Panera) bread and eat it too?

Say goodbye to flatbread pizza

As the updated April 4 menu opens the door to nine new entrees, it's shutting the door on at least one menu category. Panera confirmed with CNN that flatbreads are getting the boot. In Panera's effort to snag a slice of the dinner crowd, it launched flatbread pizzas back in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Panera had been planning flatbread for years, the company couldn't have planned such ideal timing to enter the pizza market. The pandemic was a time when the world craved pizza like never before. While most of the restaurant industry struggled, pizza chains saw skyrocketing sales. Even frozen pizzas were flying off the shelves. Panera's flatbread pizza lineup premiered with Cheese, Margherita, and Chipotle Chicken & Bacon. In just a few weeks, millions of these flatbreads sailed out of Panera's kitchens, surpassing even the company's sales expectations.

But the pizza boon couldn't last, and it looks like Panera's attempt to moonlight as a flatbread pizzeria is coming to an end. And maybe that's okay. While some pizza defenders believe there's no such thing as bad pizza, Panera finds itself on the lower end in a ranking of restaurant chain flatbreads. Panera's pizza had a good run, but in the end, the effort fell a bit flat.

Kitchen Sink Cookie is safe

Mayhem ensued when a viral TikTok video exposed soon-to-be discontinued Panera menu items. A similar scare received hundreds of comments on Reddit when Redditor u/Wolfygirl97 posted a list of "menu items leaving" in the unofficial r/Panera subreddit. The list is so long, you might need a Charged Lemonade to get through it all. Both the TikTok video and the list on Reddit include the Kitchen Sink Cookie. Listed among the Panera fan favorites, this large shareable cookie has semi-sweet chocolate, milk chocolate, caramel pieces, and pretzels, and is topped with a touch of flake salt. The list on Reddit also puts the entire Kids Menu on the chopping block.

But cookie lovers and kids can rejoice! As it turns out, the lists featured in the TikTok video and on Reddit were based on some menu test runs happening in a few select cafes. CNN swooped in like the hero we needed, confirming directly with Panera that the Kitchen Sink Cookie isn't going anywhere, and the Kids Menu is sticking around, too. Still wearing its cape, CNN also confirmed that Panera's April 4 menu update is not the menu test that blew up TikTok and Reddit. So, rest assured, the Kitchen Sink Cookie is not ready to crumble.

Possible looser standards for meat ingredients

This year has ushered in some behind-the-scenes shifts in Panera's ingredient standards. According to internal documents seen by Reuters, Panera told its restaurants to remove signs boasting "No Antibiotics Ever," "Vegetarian Fed," and a host of other green pasture promises. And Redditor u/Silvawuff, a moderator to the unofficial Panera subreddit r/Panera, posted what appears to be a Panera Bread "Cafe Signage Removal Rollout Guide" listing the same banned phrases reported by Reuters. The document on the subreddit goes on to explain, "This policy update allows for judicious use of antibiotics in our pork and turkey products and provides more flexibility in our feeding standards for chicken and beef."

This marks a potential major shift. Panera was the knight in shining armor for antibiotic-free fare. On the topic of Food Beliefs, Panera's 2021 Responsibility Report noted the company had achieved its commitment to 100% antibiotic-free poultry and pork products. In 2015, 2016, and 2017, Panera and Chipotle were the only restaurants that consistently aced the Center for Food Safety's report card for their antibiotic policies. When the grading focused just on beef in 2019 and 2021, Panera's grade slipped to a still very respectable "A-." But that grade may slip more in 2024 and beyond. Four of Panera's new menu items include bacon — the Bacon Mac & Cheese, Chicken Bacon Rancher, Tomato Basil BLT, and the Ranch Cobb Salad. But antibiotic-free pork is limited and expensive, which might explain why Panera's taking certain signs down.

More freezers and fewer bakers

Multiple Panera Bread café employees spoke to Nation's Restaurant News, telling stories of reduced hours and layoffs for bakers. It looks like Panera's leaning more into par-baking — bread, bagels, and pastries can be partially baked somewhere else, frozen, and then zapped to finish in the café. Chatter on Reddit matches this narrative. In the unofficial subreddit r/Panera, Redditor u/Deep_Pudding_7472 said, "The time has come ... to say goodbye. No more beloved bakers in our market." Accompanying this farewell was a screenshot of a message that appeared to be from Panera about career transitions. Ouch.

Panera may be in the throes of an identity crisis. In the "about us" section in a Panera press release from June 15, 2022, the company explains that "we began with a simple commitment: to bake bread fresh every day in our bakery-cafes. No short cuts, just bakers with simple ingredients and hot ovens." But that section in the press release about the April 4 menu mentions no such commitment, and the word "bakers" appears nowhere. Already gone from the press releases, bakers may soon be gone from Panera's cafes.

Freezing is not new to Panera. Panera's Mac & Cheese comes pre-prepared and frozen, as does the soup. Panera explains its reasoning for freezing food — to avoid using preservatives and to provide a consistent experience across cafes. But as Panera embraces its frosty new era, it may be drifting away from the warm, yeasty embrace of its humble bakery beginnings.

Why Panera's making changes

In a press release, Panera dubs the April 4 menu update as "a new era at Panera," with the "biggest menu transformation in brand history." So why the culinary makeover? Panera's mixing things up to zoom in on what diners love most — soups, salads, sandwiches, and, of course, the VIP of comfort food, Mac & Cheese. We certainly need comfort these days given the rising cost of living, and Panera knows consumers are looking for value. The company plans to offer sandwiches at a variety of price points while enhancing portions on some favorites to give you more bang for your buck. The new menu also aims to streamline operations for Panera associates, so they can serve you faster than you can say, "Extra avocado, please."

Behind the scenes, there might be more to this story. With Panera aiming to go public in 2024, it's all hands on deck for growth and profit. The company's already shuffled its leadership, laid off 17% of its corporate staff, and confidentially filed some initial public offering (IPO) paperwork last year. With Panera on Fast Company's list of "10 most highly anticipated IPOs to watch," it's clear Panera's not just baking bread — it's baking up a recipe for stock market success.

Charged Lemonade behind the counter among new legal woes

In 2023, Panera faced two wrongful death lawsuits alleging the company failed to provide adequate labeling about the ingredients in Charged Lemonade, a drink in Panera's Charged Sips collection. Now, in 2024, Panera is confronting another legal challenge. A woman with no underlying health conditions claims the Charged Lemonade has caused her ongoing heart issues.

After the initial lawsuits, some Panera cafes started sprucing up signage at the Charged Sips self-serve fountains. More recently, some locations decided to move these fruity, caffeinated beverages behind the counter. Now, if you're craving that zing, you'll have to wait for an employee to jazz up your cup personally. Taking a peek at the menu on Panera's website, you'll notice a little heads-up about the Charged Lemonade, clearly stating: "Contains caffeine. Use in moderation. NOT RECOMMENDED FOR children, people sensitive to caffeine, pregnant or nursing women." Despite the ongoing legal battle surrounding Charged Sips, CNN dishes out that Panera might keep the drinks around to steer clear of any vibes that might relate to admitting the drinks are dangerous.

Though the drinks now come with a warning about moderation, Panera's Sip Club collects a monthly fee for endless drinks, Charged Sips included. A Sip Club member can order ahead to have their cup waiting. But the usual grab-and-go will no longer work for Charged Sips — Panera's Sip Club website now explains that "Any Charged Sips orders will be filled for you by an associate."

Panera's history of menu changes

Panera's menu likes to remind us that the only constant is change. Menu items come and go, sometimes leaving a bagel-shaped hole in our hearts. There's a growing list of discontinued Panera items that need to make a comeback. Some discontinued items do make triumphant returns, such as the fan-favorite Toasted Frontega Chicken Sandwich. But then there are those questions that keep us up at night, like whatever happened to the Cuban sandwich at Panera?

Not so long ago, Panera was on a mission to lure in breakfast and dinner guests. New breakfast wraps came up with the sun, and an expanded coffee lineup brewed for the morning crowd. Panera rolled out warm grain bowls and flatbread pizzas for later in the day. But with the April 4 menu overhaul, Panera seems to be doubling down on lunch, saying goodbye to flatbread pizzas and honing in on core items — soups, salads, sandwiches, and mac & cheese.

So, what's the takeaway from Panera's game of culinary musical chairs? If your favorite item disappears in 2024, hold onto hope — it could be the next Toasted Frontega Chicken Sandwich comeback story! And if you lock eyes with a new menu crush in 2024, don't get too attached — you never know what will come in Panera's next big announcement.