Welcome to my food blog! I am your average home cook and I want to share my love of food with the world. I'll divulge my recipes as often as possible. Feel free to comment or to email me at nodessertpodcast@gmail.com! Don' forget to come by often for new posts... I love having you visit me!

December 20, 2012

Restaurant Review 12 - Panera Bread

Store Front at night
This post is truly a special one!  I am part of a program through DailyBuzz Food that allows me the opportunity to opt in to be a part of special tastings and trial products.  Recently I got picked to be part of a panel of people who will be reviewing soups from Panera bread.  I was really excited about this as I am a big fan of Panera in general, and this adventure would allow me to try some of the soups that they offer at Panera Bread.
Gift Card
Before I actually went to the restaurant, I checked out their website, which you can find at Panera Bread, to see if they had anything new going on.  Turns out, they have a lot of new stuff, including a whole section dedicated to their soups! 
They have several videos where you can see how some of the soups are made or what ingredients they use and why.  The chef in the videos talk about how they dedicate themselves to layers of flavor and use top notch ingredients.Quality is also an emphasis, such as making sure all the sand is removed from the clams they use in their New England Clam Chowder.  The food at Panera is made with love, and they talk about making your food fun such as by serving soup in bread bowls that you can tear apart and eat with your soup.  There's a page that lists what soup they will be serving that week, sorted by day, and there are certainly a lot of varieties to choose from!  There's a page dedicated to their partnership with Feeding America, and you can learn all about their charitable ventures.  These include the PaneraCares community cafes, and the food banks that now deliver Panera soups, plus their monetary donations.  Best of all, there's a game!  You can have fun on the site as well as learn about all Panera has to offer.  Check it out at
Panera Bread's motto is "Good Goes In" and I could certainly tell this on my visit to the restaurant.
Now lets talk about my visit!  I went to Panera on a Monday night.  There's a stand alone location in Apopka, FL which was five minutes from my house, That was convenient, and I noticed that even more convenient is that this location has a drive thru!  There are several locations in my area, both by my house and my office.  I chose to dine in at this location by my house because I wanted to see the layout of the restaurant.  The restaurant was clean and well lit, without being overly bright.  There was soft Christmas music playing (tis the season!).  There were people going through the drive thru, and several people eating inside.  There was one person ahead of me in line, but a cashier stepped up immediately as soon as they saw me and my order was taken quickly. 
I used my ten dollar gift card to order the You Pick Two combo.  I perused the soups they had available that day and saw I could choose from All-Natural Sonoma Chicken Stew, French Onion, Vegetarian Creamy Tomato, Low-Fat All-Natural Chicken Noodle, Broccoli Cheddar, Baked Potato, Low-Fat Vegetarian Garden Vegetable with Pesto.  I chose the Creamy Tomato Soup (because I had never tasted it before and wanted to try something new) and the Greek Salad.  I also ordered a bowl of the Broccoli Cheddar soup to go.  The only mistake in service was that I had ordered the You Pick Two to eat in, and the Broccoli Cheddar to go, but my whole order was bagged to go.  This was remedied later, and I'll get to that in a minute.
Greek Salad
I received my pager (everyone gets a pager when ordering from the Cafe menu to tell them when their order is ready to grab).  And went and waited by where they get your order ready.  The girl working at the pass was very friendly and greeted me warmly right away.  The customer who came up behind me seemed impatient, and the girl was calm and patient with him explaining the process in which she was working and excatly when his order would be ready.  I found this to be a very nice touch.  My order took about 5 minutes to be completed and then I was off to try my food!
Broccoli Cheddar Soup
I found a table in the back to eat at where there weren't other customers because I wanted to be able to grab my readers some good photos without disturbing the staff or other patrons.  I unloaded my bag, and took some pictures of the food.  While I was settling in to try my salad, the manager came by and asked if I would like a real bowl for my salad.  Because of the "to go" mix-up my salad was in it's little take-out container.  I assured the manager I was fine with the container, no need to dirty another dish.  He asked what happened, and I explained how I wanted one soup to go but was dining in with the rest of my order.  He again said he would be glad to grab me real dishes for my soup and salad, but I declined, just touched with the offer by itself.  It's obvious that the staff at this location really does care about their customers, and I find that to be a relief in a time where so many places are worried about the speed of their service and not necessarily the quality of their products or their customers comfort.
Doesn't that look delectable?
But let's talk about the food!
I started with a few bites of the Broccoli Cheddar soup.  I have had this soup before and consider to be my favorite that Panera offers.  It was as good as I remember, with a creamy texture dotted by small and large chunks of real broccoli florets and carrot shreds.  It is cheesy and comforting and a perfect kind of comfort food.  I placed the soup back in the bag, to save for my boyfriend to eat with his dinner later.
Vegetarian Creamy Tomato Soup
Then it was on to the the Vegetarian Creamy Tomato.  I was looking forward to trying a new soup, and tomato soup is a classic.  Panera's version was warm and comforting, creamy without being too rich.  There was tons of fresh tomato flavor, a nice balance of salt, a good blend of herbs, and a hint of black pepper.  The soup was smooth with some small onion and tomato chunks to make the texture interesting.  It was a good version of tomato soup, and next time I would order it with a grilled cheese sandwich (which coincidentally is a new offering they have, the Big Kid Grilled Cheese!).  It is a good tomato soup for eating alone or dunking a sandwich in to.  Panera's soups are served with pieces of baguette (unless you get the breadbowl) and I was definitely dunking my bread into both the tomato and broccoli soups!
Spoonful of goodness!
Both soups are exactly what you want soup to be.  Creamy and satisfying, comforting and warm (which is especially good in these winter months, even in Florida it gets a little chilly!).  I believe both soups would also be good as sauces for meats or pastas, you could use them to make up your own recipe at home!  To me, versatility is key with food.  I love that Panera's soups can be eaten alone, as part of a combo for a good lunch or light dinner, or that you could take them home and use them in part of your own cooking to invent new dishes!
Baguettes that come with the soups
And I didn't know there is so many varieties of soup available at Panera!  A lot of restaurants may only have two or three choices available, but Panera Bread offers 7 daily, and there are 5 standards that are always on the menu, with two that rotate.  The Sonoma Chicken Stew, French Onion, Creamy Tomato, Chicken Noodle, and Broccoli Cheddar are your regular choices, but depending on the day of the week, Baked Potato, Garden Vegetable with Pesto, Cream of Chicken and Rice, Black Bean, and New England Clam Chowder may also be available.  Check out Panera's Soup Calendar to find out what's available!
I want to talk briefly about my salad too, as I had it as part of the You Pick Two option.  As I've mentioned in previous posts, I love Greek Salad and I like that Panera has this available.  My salad had lettuce, tomato, red onion, feta cheese, black olives, and a pepperoncini, and came with a side of Greek dressing.  All the veggies were fresh and tasty, the feta was creamy and salty, and the dressing was a good blend of oil, vinegar, and herbs/spices.  Definitely a nice option!
I enjoy that Panera Bread has vegetarian and meat options.  Their emphasis on all-natural ingredients is also a plus, because when you're eating soup, you want it to be fresh and delicious, but also good for you.  Having options with protein that aren't meat based (example, the Vegetarian Black Bean soup) makes this restaurant a good place for taking eaters with different dietary needs/wants. 
I am so glad I got the chance to visit Panera and write this post for you.  I can't wait to go back, in fact I may go there again today for lunch (although it will have to be at a location closer to my office).  I urge you to go try Panera's soups, the ones that I had were delicious, and you might find a new favorite!

Cafe Menu

Bakery Menu

Where you pick up your order

Broccoli Cheddar Soup

Tomato soup

Greek Salad

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