Panera, otherwise known as Panera Bread, got its start in 1987 in St. Louis, Missouri. Originally called the St. Louis Bread Company, the bakery focused initially on sourdough loaves, growing in popularity and presence until it became the successful franchise we know today. With well over 2,000 locations (via ScrapeHero), the fast-casual restaurant has achieved a level of prosperity that many small start-up restaurants can only dream about, and is undoubtedly one of the most ubiquitous restaurant chains in America. And while Panera's original business model may have focused exclusively on bread, its modern menu is not only full of pillowy slices, but also soups, salads, sandwiches, drinks, pastries, cookies, coffee, and more.
All in all, Panera's journey is a success story worth celebrating ... or is it? More recently, the tides seem to be turning for the company that has run the fast-casual breakfast and lunch scene for decades -- and there are some definite signs it might be serving up sandwiches on thin ice. From worker dissatisfaction to constant consumer complaints to dwindling quality to downright dangerous products, here are some of the signs that Panera might not be around much longer.
Read more: The Healthiest Fast Food Chains In The U.S.
Customers Have Noticed A Downhill Trend In Food Quality
"Panera has gotten far, far away from what it was," begins a disappointed consumer review on Reddit. "Eliminating bakers and [...] going to pre-made frozen bread [...] People would come in for the fresh baked bread and soon what they will be getting will be no different than if they went to Walmart and bought frozen dough and cooked it at home." Ouch. Unfortunately, the idea that the food quality at Panera Bread has declined in recent years seems to be shared by consumers and employees alike.
Interestingly, many seem to pin this downhill trend on Panera's acquisition in 2017 by JAB Holding Co., a private equity firm that swept in and purchased the company from founder Ron Shaich. The change in ownership, consumers conclude, is what kick-started the slow erosion of Panera's food quality. "They [Panera] got bought by private equity group and they completely skimped on everything and tried to capitalize simply on its image," shared one Reddit user. Another on the same thread added, "Look into how private equity groups work. It's an amazing system where investors buy a company, suck it dry and then resell it with tons of debt attached." Yikes. While we can't speak to Panera's potential future debt at this time, we can conclude that its food, at least, is proving rather disappointing for many who used to be loyal fans of the chain.
Some Customers Feel The Atmosphere Has Diminished As Well
We all like to remember Panera as a comfortable, cozy hang-out spot; a place where one could order a slamming sandwich with a side of hot soup, sit down in a nice padded booth, and take one's time dining. It wasn't -- historically at least -- a place anyone was in a hurry to rush out of. At Panera, it always felt that care had been taken in creating a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere worthy of its customer's time.
Recently, however, it seems that the once-comfortable environment of the eatery has changed for the worse. "I used to go all the time [...] with my mom from like 2006-2012. I remember everything tasting good and the atmosphere being extremely comfy," said a poster on Reddit under r/Panera. "I went to a Panera [...] a few months ago and man, it's like walking into a completely different establishment/franchise. Practically nothing I remember has remained." Another reviewer on Tripadvisor echoed this, saying that their local Panera "does not promote comfort and conversation." They pinned this effect on its newly-styled open seating, which gives a feeling of consistent overcrowding, as well as angular surfaces that amplify surrounding noises. Whichever way you look at it, an uncomfortable seating environment does not bode well for a restaurant that depends on happy customers to stay afloat.
There Aren't Enough Power Outlets Available To Seated Customers
Seeing as Panera has traditionally maintained an atmosphere full of comfort, it naturally became a place where people opted to get work done, using laptops to answer emails or write papers at one of the chain's numerous tables while dining. But in order to be considered an ideal location for working while eating, ample power outlets to charge laptops are a necessary feature. Unfortunately, finding a charger seems to be a glaring problem for many who dine and work at Panera Bread.
Across multiple platforms, the chain has been called out for the meager number of outlets in its restaurants. A review on Bobbuskirk.com as far back as 2014 slammed a local Panera for its very few -- and also dangerous-looking -- outlets, claiming that wifi was being limited for customers. Another consumer on Reddit under r/Panera, in response to a comment made about how difficult finding a plug was at the restaurant, suggested, "They want table turnover." It's an interesting perspective, and very likely an accurate one. The quicker consumers leave, the quicker new ones can be served ... and impending laptop death is certainly a motive to get someone to move on. However, it's a risky stance: Who is to say that the average working customer, knowing they may not have a place to charge up in the future, will want to return to Panera at all?
It Will Supposedly Be Going Public Again ... Which May Mean Layoffs And Subpar Food
Sometimes a private equity firm will decide it's time to take a company it manages public. This is called an initial public offering, or IPO -- and it's exactly where Panera Bread is headed. JAB Holding Co., the current owner of the chain restaurant, has ushered in a brand new CEO as it reportedly prepares for IPO. However, IPOs are a notoriously tricky business undertaking. Good-looking profit margins are ideal when heading into one -- and, many speculate, the deeper that JAB immerses itself in the process of making the company look good on paper, the worse things will be for employees and consumers alike.
"Panera is planning to do an IPO (early?) next year," explained a user on a recent Reddit thread. "This means they will take the company public again [...] So their goal in the meantime is to make the bottom line profit as big as possible. They do this by eliminating jobs and cutting costs [...] They've slowly replaced many products with inferior/cheaper versions. [...] They will take their money and run and we will be left with the shell of the company that was." One of these speculations has already come to fruition, with Panera eliminating 17% of its corporate employees at the end of 2023. We shudder to think what else might be in the line of fire for the company before its public offering.
Its Workers Are Allegedly Extremely Unhappy
Panera's upcoming IPO is causing its owner, JAB Holding Co., to drastically reduce its number of employees. A whopping 300 corporate workers were ushered out the door in November of 2023, and it seems likely that more layoffs are coming. While being laid off would certainly be a reason for a worker to become distraught, employees of Panera have been reporting extreme dissatisfaction in the workplace long before the IPO-induced layoffs began.
In one Reddit post crafted by a despondent Panera employee titled, "Struggling to Stay," an alleged former general manager of the franchise chimed in. "From my experience Panera is an incredibly toxic place," they began. "Their entire corporate culture is beyond toxic, and it's not about to get better anytime soon. Get out. Do not waste any more of your life working for them." Multiple additional threads seem to confirm this professed toxicity, with one worker going so far as to describe incidents of screaming between themselves and management that caused tears. Some workers attribute many of Panera's extreme work environment issues to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but whatever the reason, a miserable workforce is never a good sign for a company.
Its Prices Have Become Unjustifiably High
With things like a fluid economy to consider, it's understandable that prices ebb and flow in restaurants. When these price fluctuations are within reason, generally speaking, consumers can look the other way. But at some point -- especially if price increases are frequent or exorbitant -- consumer eyebrows begin to rise. One chain restaurant that has earned its share of criticism in recent years regarding what some consider to be excessive price gouging is -- you guessed it -- Panera Bread.
"They've consistently raised prices every 3 months for years," claimed a frustrated alleged employee on Reddit. "With little to no pay increases for the veteran workers." A customer on a separate thread commented: "A huge shame [...] I loved Panera 3 years ago. Now can't justify the prices. I can cook a week's worth of soup with sandwiches too for the price of what they charge for a meal."
Although the discontent with the prices at Panera Bread is practically universal across the board, it seems unlikely that price cuts will be considered any time soon. Given that the restaurant's parent company is preparing for an IPO and trying to rake in as much profit as possible before this impending change, we predict that the elevated prices will hold -- at least for now. We'll keep our fingers crossed for the future, though.
It's Testing A Smaller Menu That Eliminates Many Favorites
No one can deny that Panera Bread's menu has many options for every taste. From simple bakery pastries like the Cinnamon Crunch Bagel to full-on hot entrees such as the Teriyaki Broccoli Bowl, there's a little something to satisfy any craving -- at least, there used to be. A few months ago, a massive menu cut was put into effect at select locations ... and it included the slashing of many consumers' favorite products.
"Sourdough bread? Napa Chicken salad? Cranberry muffin? Chocolate chip bagel? What's the point in going anymore?" asked a customer on Reddit in response to a posted photo of the list of food items that didn't make the cut. Though this limited menu is only being implemented at select Panera locations for now, the company told KTLA in an interview that it is being done "with the goal of providing a faster and more convenient guest experience while also simplifying operations for our associates." It seems likely that the intended end goal of this small-menu experiment is its eventual implementation into more -- maybe even all -- locations. If this happens, we anticipate a crowd of devastated consumers who will view Panera as nothing more than a shadow of what it once was.
Its Coffee Is Decidedly Unpopular Among Consumers
For a restaurant chain wanting to maintain a loyal breakfast crowd, having a decent coffee is paramount. Unfortunately, there seems to be a nearly universal feeling among consumers that Panera's brews are lacking. "Why do we allow Panera to offer the most vile, watered down, translucent, and bitter iced coffee on the market?" reads a description on a Reddit thread under r/Panera. "McDonald's, Wendy's, [...] even Kwiktrip and other convenience stores sell MUCH better coffee. What's the deal?"
This hatred for the chain's iced coffee is well-established, extending across the board on platforms such as Facebook and Tripadvisor. But it isn't only the chain's iced sippables that have come under fire: The hot coffee is also criticized by customers. "[...] They all taste like crap," reads another comment under the previously mentioned Reddit thread. "...hot coffee/iced coffee... it's just disgusting." How the company hopes to keep a steady breakfast crowd with such poorly-reviewed morning beverages, we aren't sure. Perhaps customer feedback will be heeded in this case, and appropriate adjustments made ... for Panera's sake.
Its Baked Goods Are Smaller, And Its Sandwiches Feel Slimmer
Every customer on the planet wants to feel like they're getting a bang for their buck when it comes to eating out. So while generous portion sizes are appreciated by eaters, measly ones -- especially those with steep price tags -- tend to be looked upon with disdain. Unfortunately for Panera Bread, it's been getting the latter reaction from consumers regarding its portions.
Gone are the days of huge sandwiches, pastries, and near-to-overflowing bowls of soup, say the disappointed Panera customers of the world. While many feel that the company's prices have done nothing but steadily increase over time, the products themselves seem to have simultaneously decreased in size. "Very very small servings," reads a scathing review on Tripadvisor, giving voice to the overall suspicion. "What a joke, you order a bowl, and you get this massive bowl with about a cup's worth of soup in it [...] such a horrible rip off for what you pay."
And it isn't only consumers calling out the seemingly shrunken Panera Bread kitchen creations. On Reddit, a self-professed Panera baker confirmed that many of the chain's pastries -- including Panera's Pastry Rings, Cinnamon Rolls, and Brownies -- are, in fact, smaller based on weight than they used to be. The next time you place an order at Panera and wonder about the questionable size of your sandwich, it may not be all in your head.
Its Charged Lemonade Might Actually Be Harming People
The FDA places a recommended daily limit of no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day for most people, so keeping an eye on one's total coffee, tea, and soda intake is important. As it turns out, there is an additional -- and rather unexpected -- source of caffeine coming out of Panera Bread. The chain's Charged Lemonade is touted by the company for its clean and natural ingredients, but what many don't realize is that this sweet, juice-like product also contains a potentially dangerous amount of caffeine.
According to USA Today, Panera has been hit with three recent legal battles thanks to its controversial lemonade product. Two people have died of cardiac arrest, and one has developed lasting heart issues, after consuming the beverage -- allegedly, none of them realized just how caffeinated it really was. The lawsuits claim that the labeling of the Charged Lemonades downplays their potentially risky caffeine levels. Before the scandal, a large Charged Lemonade contained up to 390 milligrams of caffeine, but Panera's current menu lists lower caffeine totals: just under 240 milligrams for a large. Panera continues to stand by the safety of its product but has reportedly moved it behind the counter instead of dispensing it from a self-serve station. This might save lives, but whether or not the drink should be offered at all remains a controversial topic.
Its Customers Are Just About Over It
It's just the way the world works: Consumers ultimately determine whether or not any restaurant will remain in business. And in the case of Panera, customers appear to slowly be dropping their allegiance to the once-beloved eatery one by one. "There's not a single redeeming item at the chain, not a single item I ever crave there anymore," reads a despairing comment on Reddit. "It used to be awesome and way more fresh when I was younger in the mid-late 2000's [...] Now it's just glorified office cafeteria food."
Unfortunately, this opinion seems to have become fairly far-reaching. Numerous public blasts exist on various online forums, written by dissatisfied customers claiming they've been served nothing but tiny, underwhelming sandwiches and sad-looking salads at exhorbitant prices. Will Panera be able to regain the public's favor and loyalty in the coming years? We guess all we can do is wait and see.
Read the original article on Mashed.