First, a confession: I used to work here. That means you get both my former employee bias and my former employee inside scoop.
Working at Panera was one of the best jobs I ever had, and one of the most fun. At the end of the day, the employees get to take home whatever baked goodies are left over, as well as any panini. There are no preservatives in the baked goods, so they don't last long--but the bread and bagels freeze very well. Whatever the employees don't take home gets donated--and I assure you, there is still plenty of stuff left to donate--more than gets used, oftentimes. After you've worked there a few weeks, you usually don't take home a whole lot of food.
I still enjoy their bagels, and buy them now, even though I ate oodles of them for free while I worked there. That's saying a lot. Bagel purists may not like these bagels. They are all sourdough-based and don't have a very hard exterior--and these traits are precisely why I prefer them over more traditional bagels. Panera's bagels also big enough to make for a filling meal.
Panera also sells an assortment of cookies and pastries, almost all of which I don't like very much. Why? I think they taste funny, probably because unlike the bread, everything else Panera makes is chemical-laden. The ingredient list on the special sauces that go on the sandwiches is about 50 items long. This is common nowadays, but not how I like to eat. I've strayed far enough into the land of organic foods that I can really taste the difference between something with just a few ingredients and something with way too many. The meats and cheeses are the usual mass-pressed variety, and everything comes from Sysco or the equivalent, so it's not the greatest quality, but it's definitely not McDonalds. Given what they have to work with, almost everything is quite tasty, and suitable for most people, even me. Panera is considered to be a fast-casual restaurant: not quite fast food, not quite a real restaurant. It's definitely a few notches above Subway and Quiznos.
I also have an issue with the soups, because I've gotten sick from them on multiple occasions. If you've ever gotten sick at Panera and you had the soup, the soup was probably the culprit. Don't eat the soup, and you should be fine. If you don't get sick from the soup, consider yourself lucky, because the french onion soup is damn tasty. And if, like me, you like to soak wads of bread in your soup, you're in luck, because you get a wad of French bread with every bowl of soup. Another thing I'm a fan of is the You Pick Two combination, where you can have a soup and a salad, a soup and a half sandwich, or a salad and a half sandwich.
What do I recommend? Well, as someone who has eaten every menu item created before January 2004, let me tell you. The frontega chicken panini and the portabella mushroom panini are great. However, the new Wilshire and 5th location in Santa Monica seems to be lacking the requisite panini grill that makes the bread nice and crunchy, so I've stopped ordering them. The bacon turkey bravo is also a very tasty sandwich--it's served on tomato basil bread, which has a bit of cinnamon steusel topping sprinkled over the crust. It also has Panera's yummy signature sauce (yes, that stuff I was complaining about being all chemically). I also like the lemonade and the cheesily named IC Honeydew drink. My favorite bagels are the popular cinnamon crunch, asiago, and the nine grain. My favorite breads are the French baguette and the tomato basil loaf. If you were wondering, "Why asiago?" it's because asiago was the only cheese that adhered to the bagel rather than sliding off when it was cooked.
On the other hand, there are also some things I do not recommend (in addition to my warnings about the soup, above). The tuna salads and chicken salads are pretty disgusting. The Ciabatta bread is pretty tasteless. I thought that the brownies were the most chemical-tasting of all the bakery items, though I knew some people who loved them. The turkey artichoke panini doesn't taste like artichoke at all, unless the person who prepared your panini put extra artichoke spinach dip sauce on your sandwich, and they probably didn't, because you're only supposed to use a certain amount of each ingredient. The panini are pre-made each morning because it takes a while to heat them up, so don't try to special order a panini. It ain't happenin. The other sandwiches are made to order, though.
Panera is a pretty decent company. They originated in St. Louis as St. Louis Bread Company. They have a 6 hour paid employee training session before you start work where you learn about the company, learn what you'll be doing on your first day, and get to sample lots of their food. They pay pretty well, but negotiating your start rate up is key, since the amount of raise you are eligible for is dependent on how well your store does. Raises are offered every six months, which sounds good, but in an industry where the average employee only stays at his or her job for four months, that's not so good. At my store, which was a second tier store in terms of performance, I would have only been eligible for a 10-cent-per-hour raise after six months. That sucks. However, almost everyone at my restaurant had been there for longer than six months--some had been there for years, at least, until we got a jerk of a manager in who seemed intent on getting rid of all the old employees, either by firing them outright or by cutting their hours. This manager got fired in less than a year on discrimination charges--it seems that Panera takes their non-discrimination clause seriously (I don't think that whoever hired him could have known he would make inappropriate comments to my lesbian friends). Panera employees, in my experience, are somewhat slow and prone to messing up your order, but are very friendly and apologetic.
I had some really great managers though, minus the one I just mentioned. Many of the employees were from low-income backgrounds and lived check to check (when you've got a kid and you make $7.50 and the dad is gone, no matter how responsible you are, it's hard to make ends meet). If it was the end of the month and you were broke, a manager would buy your meal for you, no problem. As it was, we got a 65% discount on meals. Apparently most similar restaurants only give a 50% discount, though I don't know if that's true. I always thought restaurant employees got to eat for free. If you have to have a low wage job though, working at a restaurant is really the way to go. They pay more, it's more interesting and busy than most retail, you save a ton on groceries, and you'll never starve.
So why did I quit? Well, when you have a college degree, it's extra-hard to deal with customers who think you are unintelligent and to stomach the barage of well-meaning comments from friends and family about what you ought to be doing for a living instead. I don't think I'm above cleaning bathrooms and making sandwiches. I really liked making sandwiches.
But I am glad I don't have to wear that khaki Panera cap anymore.
The bagels are all baked very early in the morning before the store opens, so get there early to get the freshest bagels and get them before they run out. This applies to everything else as well--if it's out, it's out. They can't make more. Every afternoon the dough for the next day's breads, bagels, and cookies is delivered. There is no extra stuff on hand, nor is there anyone there during the day who knows how to bake it properly, except possibly the managers, who are usually overwhelmed with things to do.
All or most locations have free WiFi.
The company policy is to let all guests stay as long as they want as long as you buy something. We had patrons who spent hours and hours in our store with only a cup of coffee and a bagel, and that was okay. No one will harrass you. There are no clocks. They want you to lose track of time and relax.
Coffee refills are free, but the coffee isn't that great. It is, however, brewed fresh every two hours (in theory) from freshly ground coffee beans.
The blended coffee drinks are made with lots and lots of half and half, so if you're cutting calories, don't drink them. The IC honeydew does not contain half and half, however, and is much better for you.
Please don't try to pronounce "croissant" with a French accent. You are not French, and I know it. You sound like a pompous ass. And if you are going to insist on this ridiculous affection, I will definitely expect you to start pronouncing "Los Angeles" in Spanish.
The pre-recorded jazzy elevator music they play sucks and at my store was the most frequent customer complaint (aside from, "you screwed up my order!").
You can get your bread sliced thick or thin. You can also get your bagel "bread-sliced," which will give you lots of fun bagel strips to dip in cream cheese.
Two small cream cheeses cost the same as an entire tub, which is the equivalent of four small cream cheeses.
The orange juice is not fresh-squeezed.
The sign in the window that says "Now Accepting Applications" is always up and does not indicate that the company actually needs to hire anyone. There is some law that says that companies have to take job applications at all times even if they aren't hiring. Incredibly silly. This doesn't explain Panera's prominent signage to me, though.
French Toast Bagel (similar to cinnamon crunch, but not as sweet)
501 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90403
Tel: (310) 566-3080
8647 South Sepulveda Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90045
Tel: (310) 641-9200
12131 Ventura Boulevard
Studio City, CA 91604
Tel: (818) 762-2226
2733 Pacific Coast Highway
Torrance, CA 90505
Tel: (310) 517-0324