Secrets Panera Bread Doesn't Want You To Know

Panera Bread first opened its doors in 1987, and the chain took off at a rapid pace. More than three decades later, there are now over 2,000 bakery-cafes scattered across 46 U.S. states and Canada. What was once known as a tiny, 400-square-foot cookie store in Boston has now become a leading brand, with billions of dollars in annual sales. The "healthier" fast-food giant has a loyal following of customers, with more than 28 million members a part of their MyPanera loyalty program. And according to Technomic (via Restaurant Business), they were the largest fast-casual chain in the country as of 2018. 

With free wifi, order kiosks, and a rapidly growing self-delivery system, Panera has found plenty of ways to continue to meet its customers' demand and grow revenue when other chains find themselves with slipping sales. However, for the Missouri-based chain, it seems that sprinkled in the middle of a menu serving green passion smoothies, frozen lemonades, delicious coffee-based drinks, and assorted pastries, are a few secrets they'd rather keep to themselves. These are the secrets Panera Bread doesn't want you to know. 

Panera's Mac & Cheese might be made in a microwave

If you search the internet for Panera Mac & Cheese you'll find a whole list of copycat recipes. There's something about the irresistibly cheesy pasta customers can't get enough of — but it's not freshness that makes it taste so good. Panera's Mac & Cheese, and all of their pasta for that matter, arrives to stores already prepared, in single serving-sized bag. Then to prepare, the pasta is either boiled in the bag or heated up in the microwave before serving. Yum!

It seems odd to picture what Blaine Hurst, Panera's vice chairman, claims as an "iconic menu item people continue to celebrate," being boiled in a bag — or worse yet, nuked to order. Especially when a large, single serving meal costs around $8 (depending on your location) and even more if you go for one of the menu's gourmet options such as the BBQ Chicken or Baja Mac & Cheese. It may be fresher and cheaper to test out one of the copycat recipes and give Panera Bread a run for their money from your own kitchen.

Panera's Green Tea and lemonade dispensers aren't always washed on the regular

Panera Bread promises to replace their coffee every 60 minutes, and the soda machines and drinks stations get a good cleaning nightly, but that doesn't seem to be the same for the green tea and lemonade circulating dispensers serving up the delicious Panera staples. One Panera employee says these dispensers, which are kept behind the counter and are only for employee use, are lucky if they are cleaned monthly (at least at that employee's particular location) and details an unpleasant first-hand experience of finding what they called black mold while cleaning out the dispenser.

If that doesn't cause your gag reflex to kick in, the employee's boss has a logical explanation on the sanitary aspect of that mold, saying that since it was growing between the dispensing tube and the cooling system, "the mold isn't actually touching the beverage as it is poured." Whether or not that's an opinion or fact, this former employee is still wary about those drink orders, and it didn't stop them from gagging during the times those dispensers were actually cleaned. There's no guarantee that all locations are like this, but it's not likely this is the only location that operates like this. How bad do you want that green tea now?

That cheese in your Panera salad is not Gorgonzola

We get it — no salad is complete without cheese crumbles. It's like french fries without ketchup or peanut butter without jelly. That's why it's so hard to come to terms with one former Panera employee's confession.

In a Reddit AMA, when asked what to stay away from at Panera Bread, an alleged former employee says, "anything with feta." It seems there were multiple times this one-time Panera employee thought a piece of Gorgonzola had accidentally slipped into the feta pan while assembling customer orders. If you're not familiar with Gorgonzola it's an Italian style blue-veined cheese. That former employee went on to reveal that after serving multiple customers the so-called Gorgonzola, it was discovered that the bottom of the feta pan was entirely green and blue — that was moldy cheese, not fancy cheese. Not exactly what you want to hear after devouring fork fulls of Panera's southwest chile lime or Greek salad.

If Panera screws up you can actually choose a sweet reward

It's been more than 30 years since Panera Bread opened its first location in Kirkwood, MO and even so Panera still stands by its pledge to "pay attention to the important things." On its website, Panera says those important things are making sure customers have a great experience — an experience that can't happen if you head to the pick-up counter and find the wrong order.

Luckily, Panera has a way to rectify those mistakes, though they're not very open about advertising this policy. If Panera messes up your order you are entitled to receive a free treat, and one customer of Panera can prove it. He posted a photo to Yelp about the free cookie he received after his order was messed up. A former Panera employee confirms to Spoon University that this is the standard, though it's a pretty well-kept secret. In fact, there's actually a sign at the order counter — a small and usually hidden sign, but alas a sign, that states that if a customer's order is wrong they can request a free treat. 

The former employee says that treat is usually a chocolate chip cookie, but if a customer asks for a different kind of bakery good, they'll most likely get their wish — just one more part of this policy that Panera probably wishes you didn't know.

The soup at Panera isn't made in house

Don't let the steaming hot bowl of soup fool you — there's no chef in the back stirring fresh ingredients into a big pot. When you sit down to enjoy one of Panera Bread's many soups, that warm spoonful was delivered to the store in the state of a frozen brick. According to former Panera employees who spoke with Refinery 29, the soup was actually made before it even entered the store. Now, before you get out your pen to start writing a letter to Panera's customer service about their claim on fresh, high-quality ingredients, let's get down to the nitty gritty.

A former Panera employee on Reddit claims that Panera's soup is made fresh off premises, and then frozen into bricks before being sent off to stores. Once in store, soups go from frozen to ready to serve by heating up in a hot water bath in the back of the store. It's not a horrible practice, but it's probably not what you thought you ordering thanks to their claims of freshness. How is that bread bowl looking now?

There is a whole other Panera menu you can be ordering from

Panera Bread actually did a big launch in 2013 around their power bowls menu that introduced six new high protein and low carb meal options like the Power Chicken Hummus Bowl or Power Steak Lettuce Wraps. The caveat was that these items weren't going to be posted on the menu boards. Instead, they were part of a "secret menu" that employees did know about, and customers could order them — if they knew they existed. 

According to Secret Menus, these not-so-well-known items are still alive and well at Panera. Just ask to order off the hidden menu, and the cashier will take care of you.

It's interesting that a company who's beliefs focus around "a menu that doesn't hide from the people it feeds" would launch the power menu only to make it less accessible to the public eye and only for those who know to ask the secret question. It's strange that this is a secret — but it is.

The menu at Panera isn't as healthy as it seems

Click around on Panera Bread's website and you'll see the words clean, nutrient rich, and raised responsibly. You'll find ingredients like whole grain, egg whites, and steel cut oatmeal on their breakfast menu, or salads loaded with fruits and vegetables. Panera has been listed in numerous magazines like Women's Health and Good Housekeeping as one of the healthiest choices for fast food restaurants, but are they really as healthy as they seem? If you dig a little deeper on their website you'll find that what customers may think are healthier alternatives may not be healthy at all.

Scrolling through Panera Bread's nutrition information you will see that a whole Greek salad contains 1180 mg of sodium. While this is the only salad option that tips the sodium scale over 1000, many of the sandwich options are even higher. A modern caprese on black pepper focaccia has 1740 mg of sodium. Should we even talk about the bread bowls? The bistro french onion in a bread bowl contains over 2200 mg of sodium and a scary 151 grams of carbs. Dietary guidelines say Americans should consume no more than 2300 mg of sodium in an entire day. And to think most meals come with a side, a drink, and maybe some dessert that isn't yet accounted for in the numbers above. It's safe to say that Panera, in all their healthy messaging, doesn't want you to look too deeply into these numbers.

Refills at Panera are free, so go small

Let's get real — the free wifi at Panera Bread is a great excuse to get some work or studying done. You can hang out longer and enjoy another cup of coffee or round of tea and soda at the self-serve machine while feeling productive. If that's the plan for the day, be sure to pay attention to your drink size when you order.

Panera Bread offers refills on most of their drinks including coffee, tea, water, and soda of any size. So, if you plan to hang around with your laptop, a group of friends or listen to some music, a former employee spilled to Spoon University that you can save a little bit of money up front by ordering a small at the register and then refilling your drink of choice as many times as you wish.This won't work on specialty drinks such as hot chocolate or frozen mochas, but we can't be too greedy. Go ahead, try it. You might have to make more trips to the counter, but your wallet will thank you later.

Night owls may be able to get free Panera pastries

If you've ever been to Panera Bread right before closing time, you may notice that there are bagels, bread, and baked goods still on the shelf. Want a free one? If you come late enough, you might get lucky. A former employee spilled the beans, saying there are always extra pastries on the shelf before closing time. If you're one of the last customers, just ask and you may be able to snag a baked good without shelling out any change. Now that's a secret you night owls will be glad to know! Whichever ones you don't choose though, you won't find them on the shelves the next morning — and they won't go to waste either.

Panera Bread has always been open about what happens to those bakery items once the lights go out. Through Panera's Day-End Dough-Nation program, any unsold goods are donated to local food pantries, soup kitchens or homeless shelters to help feed those in need.

The food at Panera may not be 100 percent clean

Back in 2015 Panera began the quest to remove more than 150 ingredients from their menu including artificial sweeteners, colors and preservatives. Before this announcement, customers could find artificial ingredients in some of Panera's salad dressings, flatbreads and soups to name a few. Panera now has a "No-No List" on their website that details what customers will no longer find in their food, and they stand by their "100 percent of our food is 100 percent clean motto." However, even though Panera may no longer serve food with artificial ingredients, does that truly make it 100 percent clean? GMO Free USA thinks otherwise.

In March 2019, GMO Free USA published a report, Eating Out: A Date with Glyphosate. In that report, it states that out of 15 fast food and casual chains tested, Panera had the highest residue of the herbicide glyphosate of all restaurants. 

A complaint brought against Panera by the Clean Label Project Foundation that same month states that foods such as whole grain bagels, the Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich, and certain oatmeal, contain the synthetic biocide glyphosate. According to the complaint, glyphosate is suspected to have detrimental health effects. 

According to the FDA, glyphosate has a low toxicity for humans, is not likely to be carcinogenic, and is safe to use on approved crops in safe quantities. Still, it's up to you whether or not it's something you'd rather not ingest. 

Panera's lobster isn't the best — or the cheapest

You won't find lobster on the menu all year round, but when the right season hits, select Panera Bread locations offer options with this coastal favorite such as Lobster Mac & Cheese and lobster rolls. New York and Massachusetts are just a couple of the northeastern states offering this delicacy. For a lobster roll with a side a chips, customers will shell out around $18, according to employee. That's a price that some northeast Panera employees say is quite high for the quality.

Two Panera employees confess on Reddit that customers can find fresher and better tasting lobster rolls right down the street from their locations — for much less. A Massachusetts-based employee says they feel bad when a customer orders the lobster roll when for $9 they can head down the street for something tastier. A New York employee says customers can find many places in the area that offer a much fresher lobster roll for at least $5 less than the choice from Panera.

Panera's paninis are on their way out

When you think panini, you think two nicely toasted pieces of Italian bread surrounding hot and melty inner goodness. It's a style Panera customers have grown to love — and one that seemingly seems to be disappearing from the menu. When a dissatisfied customer vented on Reddit about his usual Bacon, Egg & Cheese panini on Ciabatta no longer being served as they remember it, a Panera employee jumped in to share the reason saying, "Many Paneras are now switching to TurboChefs." Another employee also chimed in to confirm saying that with TurboChefs, a brand of high-speed ovens designed to cook faster, the bread will no longer be pressed or flattened, but baked.

This revelation seems to be in line with the Panera menu that lists sandwiches as toasted and photos that clearly show crispy bread no longer pressed with perfectly parallel lines like a regular panini. While they've clearly updated the images on their menus, they haven't been very vocal about announcing the change to their customers. Perhaps they thought we wouldn't notice?  As if the nail hadn't already been placed firmly in the coffin, another Panera Bread employee talks about the deletion of the Tomato Mozzarella panini from the menu (which makes sense, if paninis aren't a thing anymore). They say that now, "Most have it as a flatbread, by you can ask for it on ciabatta like it used to be." Good to know for fans of that toasty sandwich.