Panera Bread: What You Should Know About The Sandwich Chain

Today Panera Bread stands as one of the leaders in fast-casual dining. It's the perfect place to grab a hearty sandwich, soup, or salad for lunch or a pastry and coffee for breakfast. Fresh bread, and homey cafes, give the restaurant a comforting, authentic appeal that resonates with customers across the U.S. and Canada. Though the chain had humble beginnings, Panera Bread now has over 2,000 locations in the United States, and it pushes for high standards in all of them. Panera Bread offers "clean" eating, freshly baked bread, and free and fast wifi to all its customers: The bakery cafe has definitely found its recipe for success!

So how did they become the fast-casual giant that consumers know and love today? There's more to the story than you might realize. And as a company constantly pushing for innovation, whether it's with AI, ordering methods, or store layouts, it's safe to say there's much more to come. There are a few little-known facts about the restaurant that Panera Bread customers should be aware of.

It started as Saint Louis Bread Co.

Although Panera Bread is now a popular franchise with locations across the U.S. and Canada, it's a relatively new creation. In fact, you wouldn't have seen a Panera prior to the '90s. The company's first iteration was founded in 1987 as Saint Louis Bread Co. Few people could have predicted just how much this small community and bakery would grow. And though the company has grown and changed a lot since then, it still uses the same sourdough starter to make fresh bread daily.

So, how did Panera Bread go from a Saint Louis-based bakery to the popular restaurant we know and love today? In 1993 founder Ron Shaich saw the bakery's potential to grow to a much larger scale. He noted the growing desire for a clean eating option that could be served fast and affordable and believed his company could fill that niche. 

So, the restaurant was rebranded from Saint Louis Bread Co. to Panera Bread to appeal to customers across the US. Shaich explained this naming choice to The Washington Post and said that they wanted a name that was an empty vessel that they could furnish with enhanced personality, which led to the birth of the "Panera" name. 

Panera used to be the country's largest provider of free wifi

In the early 2000s, free wifi was not the cafe staple it is today. Most bakeries and coffee shops that had wifi were using a pay model. But, in 2004, Panera broke away from that mold and became the largest provider of free wifi in the U.S., with over 600 bakeries offering free wifi to customers. It provided a space for guests to come in and enjoy their food while also getting work done or surfing the web.

This was a well-timed decision as low-carb diets were a significant trend during 2004. Panera, as a company founded on artisan bread, had to find a way to keep the customers coming, regardless of fad diets. Though Panera added some lower-carb options to its menu, for the most part, it stuck to fresh, delicious bread, sandwiches, and other bakery favorites. Panera successfully survived the low-carb trend, and customers still visit Panera locations for tasty food and free wifi. 

Today, many other companies have followed suit, offering fast and free wifi to their customers. Panera remains an excellent free wifi provider, along with other restaurants like Starbucks, Taco Bell, Arby's, Tim Horton's, and many more.

It still bakes fresh bread daily

Back when Panera was still the Saint Louis Bread Co., it was founded on making fresh, artisan bread daily. To this day, Panera sells fresh bread (via Delish). The chain makes over 250 million bagels and 50 million baguettes annually: That's a lot of baking! And it employs over 6,000 bakers to get all that done and keep Panera customers full of delicious fresh bread. However, the bread dough isn't actually made on-site. Panera has Fresh Dough Facilities throughout the country where the dough is created. The dough is then delivered to the bakeries at night to be baked fresh the next morning, which is a pretty efficient process.

However, while Panera boasts bakery-fresh bread, that doesn't mean all its food is up to that standard. One employee commented on a Reddit thread where Panera Bread workers shared some little-known facts and shared that the mac and cheese is not fresh at all. It's pre-made and stored in a frozen bag that's heated up in boiling water or a microwave when needed. The employee also shared that the avocadoes are often left out for several hours. 

Panera Bread closed its pay-what-you-can restaurants

In 2010, Panera Bread took on a bold venture by opening its first Panera Cares locations. The goal of the project was to create a donation-based community cafe to raise awareness about food insecurity. Though the menus listed suggested donations for the food, customers could eat at the Panera Cares locations on a pay-what-you-can model. After launching Panera Cares, Panera's founder Ron Shaich gave a TEDx talk on food insecurity in America and his dream of combating it. 

The pay-what-you-can restaurants offered the same menu items at other locations. But, because there was no standardized pricing, those struggling to afford food could still eat there. The hope was that those with more money would donate extra to help balance it out for the company. As Shaich explained it, it was a risky move for the company. 

Sadly, the dream of a pay-what-you-can cafe wasn't as sustainable as Panera had hoped. It seems the pay-what-you-can model was not always executed well, and many customers who the project should have been helping felt unwelcomed. One reviewer who struggled to afford food wrote that when they tried to buy a meal with fifty cents, the cashier loudly stated that the donation was too small and gave them a pastry. The last Panera Cares location was shut down in 2019 because the project soon became unsustainable.

Panera started testing AI in 2022

In August 2022, Panera Bread introduced AI (artificial intelligence) technology in its drive-thrus (via CNBC). Panera utilized OpenCity's voice-ordering technology (Tori) in its AI drive-thrus. Customers can order from Tori instead of an employee, although Panera employees are still available to take payment and offer assistance if there's any kind of glitch in the AI. 

Raj Anbalagan, Panera's senior vice president of digital and technology innovation, told Nation's Restaurant News that deciding to test this technology was an easy choice for the company, as Panera is always looking for new ways to innovate that improve efficiency, which can help employees focus on the quality of the orders. 

It may sound like sci-fi, but it could be a model that Panera and many other restaurants move to in the near future. This also isn't the first time Panera has introduced AI. In April 2022, the restaurant implemented Miso Robotics for automated coffee brewing. So, it seems Panera is pushing to be at the forefront of bringing AI technology into its cafes. Only time will tell if Panera decides to use this ordering system at its franchises as well. 

Panera merged with Caribou Coffee and Einstein Bros. Bagels in 2021

Panera Bread made another huge business move in 2021 when it merged with Caribou Coffee and Einstein Bros Bagels (via Restaurant Business). All three companies are now a part of Panera Brands, with Panera Bread's CEO, Niren Chaudhary, as the head of the company. Einstein CEO Jose Alberto Duenas and Caribou CEO John Butcher will continue in their positions but report to Chaudhary.

From a customer standpoint, you may not have noticed the difference, as you can still go to your local Panera, Caribou Coffee, or Einstein Bros as usual. The company is hoping this merger will push the brand toward becoming a powerhouse in fast-casual dining. At the time of the merger, Panera had 2,100 cafes, Caribou Coffee had 713 locations, and Einston Bros. had 1,005 locations. Chaudhary said that the three brands came together to leverage the unique strengths that each offers to build a strong fast-casual platform that had enormous potential for expansion and growth. 

Panera gives back with its Day-End Dough-Nation program

Although Panera Cares closed its doors, the company still strives to give back to the community in other ways, and one of these initiatives is the Day-End Dough-Nation program. Because the bakery cafe makes fresh bread, bagels, and pastries daily, they don't sell any leftover bread the next day. Instead, Panera partners with community donation centers to give leftover bread to local non-profits and feed those in need. Some of the services Panera donates to include food pantries, domestic violence shelters, after-school programs, veterans services, youth shelters, and many more.

The Panera Bread Foundation is also focused on giving back. In 2022, Panera bakery-cafes started giving guests the option to round up their total and give the extra change to donate to at-risk youth. Debbie Roberts, President of the Panera Bread Foundation Board of Directors, told Business Wire that the company aims to work towards diversity and inclusion through initiatives such as the Give Change for Children program. Roberts emphasized the hope that the contributions would help young people in the community actualize their aspirations so that everyone can access opportunities and mobility.

Panera is a healthy fast-food option

One of Panera Bread's big selling points is that it's a good place for clean eating. It can be hard to find affordable, quick food that's also healthy, so that's a big deal to a lot of customers. According to the restaurant chain, its food is made without artificial preservatives, sweeteners, flavors, and colors. The chain refers to these ingredients as part of the "no-no list," and they're excluded from bakery-cafe menu items and Panera's grocery products. Panera, in its mission for healthy eating, was also one of the first restaurants to include calorie counts on the menu board.

Many of Panera's popular menu items contain fresh, healthy veggies, as well as filling meat or other proteins. If you're looking for the healthiest options at Panera, dietitians shared some of the best menu items with Eat This, Not That. The first suggestion is the restaurant's Mediterranean Bowl, which is made with nutritious ingredients like leafy greens, cucumbers, quinoa, and hummus. The salad is a great source of fiber, and you can also order it with chicken for extra protein. The Deli Turkey Sandwich is a classic, healthy option with high-quality protein, fiber, and low sugar content. You can request that your sandwich orders are made with whole wheat bread to add more nutrients to your sandwich orders.

Some of Panera's marketing tactics have been criticized

As a company, Panera prides itself on providing "clean" eating options with freshly prepared ingredients and menu items suitable to a variety of diets, including vegetarian, vegan, and Climatarian diets. In 2016, Panera even had an online game called Land of Clean (no longer available) where users could play a game that entailed removing artificial preservatives, sweeteners, and other ingredients.

However, Panera Bread has also been criticized by some for using clean eating as a marketing tactic when it's not always accurate. Matt Teegarden, a graduate fellow in food science from Ohio State University, told Forbes that this marketing tactic could lead to unnecessary fear in consumers that their food is unhealthy or dangerous. He warned not to buy into the "pseudoscience" that Panera was promoting since it implies that all food additives with scientific-sounding names are harmful, which is inaccurate.  

Panera introduced fast lane kiosks to make dining easier

Panera Bread often pushes for new ways to make its fast and casual dining experience more streamlined and enjoyable for the customer. One way Panera accomplished this is by introducing fast lane kiosks to stores in 2015 (via Business Insider). Instead of ordering from a cashier, customers could browse the menu at one of the kiosks, put in the order, and wait for their meal: It's simple, efficient, and cuts down on line time.

Ordering from the kiosks should help things run more smoothly and ensure that orders are put in accurately. Plus, consumers can take a closer look at menu items' ingredients and get exactly what they want. Panera ‎Chief Transformation & Growth Officer Blaine Hurst spoke to Business Insider and pointed out that the digital kiosk enables customers to properly browse menus as well as nutritional information, thus making it easier for customers to personalize their orders. The cafes still typically have a human cashier option for anyone preferring not to use the touch screen kiosks. But, the quick-service kiosks are highly convenient for guests hoping to get in and out quickly. Other restaurant chains like McDonald's, Subway, and Wendy's have employed similar technologies in many locations.

The best ways to save money at Panera

Although Panera Bread is more affordable than some other restaurants, the expenses can add up pretty quickly if you eat there frequently. Fortunately, there are some great ways to pinch your pennies while getting your favorite sandwich or bread bowl. The first is to order your coffee or fountain drink in a small size. If you're dining in, you get refills, so you might as well go with the smallest and, subsequently, cheapest drink and just refill it as many times as necessary.

There are also plenty of more affordable menu items. A few Panera Bread employees opened up to Business Insider about how to get the best bang for your buck at the cafe. Firstly, if you want a full meal, the restaurant's pick-two option, where you can get a combination of salads, soups, and sandwiches, is a good deal. The soup and sandwich option is particularly filling, and you'll likely have leftovers. 

Baked goods are also sold at a reasonable price. And if you're already getting a meal with a drink, you can add on a pastry or cookie for 99 cents. However, an employee warned that this is only a good deal if you have already planned to order a drink. Otherwise, skipping the drink and buying the pastry is usually cheaper. Lastly, if you're a Panera fiend, sign up for its rewards program to earn points for your orders.

Panera to-go stores were introduced in 2022

Panera Bread experimented with another advancement in 2022, opening its first to-go stores (via Nation's Restaurant News). These new stores are 40 percent smaller than your typical Panera restaurant. It's easy to save space in these to-go stores because they have very limited seating options for customers to dine in. This is purposeful as the spaces are designed for order pick-up. There also shouldn't be any lines to order: The stores are made for customers to order ahead online, pick up their food, and head out the door in no time.

However, Panera, as a brand that's known for its cozy cafe style, isn't moving away from its classic dine-in experience. These to-go stores are being launched in addition to the original restaurants and not instead of. To-go stores are particularly beneficial in cities with limited space and rushed lunch crowds, which is why the first to-go stores are in New York and Chicago. Eduardo Luz, chief brand and concept officer for Panera, noted that while the brand enjoys its suburban markets, it also wants to present a compact and convenient option for people in urban neighborhoods where space is limited.