Confessions Of Former Panera Employees

This story was originally published on June 27, 2017.

While fast-casual restaurant chains are now a dime a dozen, for many of us, Panera was the first introduction to food that could be fast, but not look like fast food. And whether it's been years since you tasted a cinnamon chip bagel, or you just had a bread bowl last week, there is something about the entire experience that will always stay with us.

To learn more, we spoke to two former Panera employees, Ellen and Adrienne,* for the inside scoop. While they both hung up their green aprons several years back (Ellen and Adrienne worked at Panera at different times, but prior to 2013), they were more than happy to answer our questions. They shared the ups and downs of life behind the counter, and whether or not they still frequent the chain. (Yes, we asked about the bread bowls.)

*Names have been changed. The following interviews were told to Refinery29 and edited for length and clarity.

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Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images.
Starting Out

Adrienne: I worked almost every non-management position at some point: dishes, sandwich line, salad line, expediting, bakery, and cashier.

Ellen: I was sometimes on the line (making the food) or in the role where you “combined” everything with the sides, but mostly was on the cash register. I often did the bakery shift, so you would get there before opening – like 5 a.m. I really liked laying out the pastries at the beginning of the day — you would take them off of trays and arrange them according to a laminated scheme — not too many degrees of freedom because they wanted all Paneras to look alike.

Adrienne: The basic guidelines for the uniform were that you had to wear a collared shirt in a muted color with khaki pants. Shorts were okay during the summer, but they had to pass the fingertips rule.

At one point, both stores I worked for were bought out by corporate, and that came with a mandate that all employees had to have slip-resistant shoes. All of management's suggestions were ugly as hell, so I very carefully read the posted shoe guidelines and realized that Doc Martens qualified. I specifically asked the general manager if the shoes had to be any particular color, and the answer was no. So I got crazy purple shoes on sale at Journeys. Some of the managers were pissed, but because the shoes technically followed all of the rules, they couldn't really do anything about it. Only one of them thought it was hilarious. I felt good about my little rebellion, and frequently got compliments on them from customers.
Photo: Waring Abbott/Getty Images.
Working The Line

Ellen: Training was pretty straight forward. We watched a corporate training video and after that it was just becoming familiar with the menu and what was in each item.

Adrienne: The hardest thing was getting up to the ticket times they wanted — the goal was to have every order done in three minutes or less. For the most part, though, the work was pretty routine.

Ellen: We also had to learn how to prep things ahead of time in the right serving sizes when we worked on the line.

Adrienne: I hated making the salads, because they were often really fussy. The Strawberry Poppyseed Chicken Salad and another salad that had a huge hunk of salmon on it were massively annoying. Due to allergy concerns, you had to wash your hands and change your gloves after making every one of those salads, and that got old really fast.

The bread bowls weren’t hard to make, but definitely not pleasant, either. The tool for making bread bowls was a serrated-edged circle that had a handle on top (this thing, roughly, though the serration was a lot bigger). You put the thing in the top, middle part of the bread, then twisted your wrist around until you reached the bottom of the bowl. Because the bread's outer crust was so hard, you had to really twist hard to dig into it, which got tiresome and painful pretty quickly. All of the bread bowls were cut as part of morning prep.
The Food

Ellen: On the register, I hated how literally everyone customizes sandwiches and salads — so that was pretty annoying to key in. While I was there, the most popular food item was the Fuji Apple Chicken Salad, which they actually took off the menu. The Bacon Turkey Bravo was pretty popular.

Adrienne: At my locations, I think it was a You Pick Two combo with a Bacon Turkey Bravo and mac and cheese that was the most popular.

At that time, very little cooking happened on site. I have no idea if they've changed it [Editor's Note: many of Panera's food policies have since changed], but all of the [dough from the] bread and pastries came up on a truck, frozen, from a town about an hour away.

Soup arrived in giant bricks that were heated in a hot water bath in the back of the house (same for mac and cheese and oatmeal, though those came in individually portioned bags). The vegetables were usually pretty fresh. The bread and pastry items were baked in the store, but that was more or less the extent of it.

Ellen: They did make their own croutons! I did that sometimes — you would take a sourdough loaf and put it through the bread slicer both ways, then mix the bread slices with the Caesar dressing, and put them in the oven. I also learned how to "score" the French baguettes, which was cool.

Another thing people didn't realize was that you could order seasonal items even if they were off the menu. We would serve those until the ingredients ran out.
Photo: Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images.
Looking Back

Ellen: The paninis were made in the morning and then they just sat there all day in the warming drawers... I never order them when I do go back to Panera (which I still do, just not very often). [Editor's note: Panera now makes paninis fresh to order.]

Adrienne: Nope. I'm done. I think I ate, like, half of a pumpkin muffin at my first post-college office job a few years ago. Someone brought in a whole bunch of pastries for breakfast, and I was excruciatingly broke at the time. I've actively avoided Panera as much as possible. It definitely wasn't the worst job, but I'm super glad not to be doing it anymore, too.

This policy may have changed, but it used to be that leftover bread was donated to different local charities at the end of the night. It was pretty frequent (and unfortunate) that the charities wouldn't come pick up the donation on their assigned nights, and local shelters wouldn't take it because they couldn't verify that someone hadn't tainted the food. If I was closing and someone didn't collect the donation, I took it home with me instead, because I drove a pickup truck. Management was always okay with it. Shortly before clocking out, I'd text all of my broke friends with instructions on where to meet me if they wanted bread. Everyone would load up and freeze stuff that they didn't eat right away. I'd often show up late to house parties with a twenty-gallon bag full of bagels or a giant box of pastries. It was a fun and silly time.
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