Panera Bread's Community Involvement And New Menu Items

I was recently invited to Panera Bread to learn more about the company and the bakery-cafes. I think I first discovered Panera when I was in college and used to go in for bread boules filled to the top with soup -- usually broccoli cheddar. It's also the first place I encountered the concept of baking only muffin tops, called "muffies." Genius. Since then Panera has become somewhere I rely on to grab a quick lunch while I'm out running errands or to refuel with a snack while on a road trip. I was interested in learning more about the company and met with some Panera representatives one evening after work at the Boylston Street location in Boston.

I enjoyed a bowl of creamy tomato soup with Asiago croutons (one of my favorite Panera offerings) and a hunk of baguette while talking and learning about Panera.

Here are just a few things I learned:

  • Each Panera Bread bakery-cafe across the country hosts an Operation Dough-Nation partnership with a designated local charity, raising donations at registers and through fundraising events held throughout the year. Greater Boston area cafes partner with Children's Hospital and South Shore Hospital.
  • Panera of Greater Boston's Gingerbread Man Cookies for Kids Campaign is running from December 5-18. Panera aims to help kids overcome life-threatening illnesses through this campaign. For every gingerbread man cookie sold, a portion of the proceeds will go to Children's Hospital and South Shore Hospital.
  • All breads and pastries are baked fresh daily in each cafe, and through a Day-End Dough-Nation program, Panera donates any unsold breads and baked goods at the end of each day to local food banks and charities.
  • Panera will slice your breads and bagels for you, and you can choose thick or thin slices (and bagels can be sliced vertically or horizontally) -- something to keep in mind when you're making French toast.
  • Panera's menu changes every few months to feature seasonal ingredients.

I left that evening with information about Panera's community programs, as well as a bundle of Asiago cheese bagels (another of my favorite Panera offerings), a warm baguette, some cookies, and a gift card to return to Panera to try some of the new menu options, which are now available.

Last weekend, I had a chance to head back to Panera for lunch and stopped into the Everett location on a break from Christmas shopping. I did the "You Pick 2" option so I could try a cup of the new Sonoma Chicken Stew with Dry Jack Cheese Biscuit as well as a half portion of the Steak Balsamico Panini.

Photo courtesy of Panera Bread

While I thought the stew had good flavor and I loved the veggies in it, I wasn't as into the texture. It reminded me of chicken pot pie filling, and I wanted it to be much thicker like a typical stew. It's perfect for those of you looking for a thick, hearty soup. Texture aside, I liked it, but it doesn't knock tomato or broccoli cheddar out of the running for me.

The panini, on the other hand, really impressed me, and I'll likely order it again. Pressed between warm ciabatta bread are thin slices of top sirloin, mozzarella, roasted red peppers, baby spinach, tomato, basil, and a balsamic spread. I thought all the flavors in this sandwich went perfectly together, and I loved that it's served warm with melty cheese on Panera's fresh bread.

In addition to these new savory options, Panera also has some new sweets just in time for the holidays like their Holiday Bread and Cranberry-Walnut Panettone. The holiday bread is made with sweet egg dough blended with honey, golden raisins, cranberries and chocolate chips; stuffed with a cinnamon apple filling and cinnamon sugar; and topped with baked crumbs and icing. I haven't tried it yet, but it sounds delicious. And so does the seasonal peppermint hot chocolate!

Photo courtesy of Panera Bread

Panera treated me to dinner and baked goods when I came in and gave me a gift card to try new menu items, but as always my opinions are my own.

Do you like Panera? Did you know about Panera's partnership with Children's Hospital or the Day-End Dough-Nation program?