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Panera Bread

Panera offers a delicious meal with a side order of full disclosure.

Oh geez.  I just ate 1,150 calories for lunch. 

I am sure that this isn’t the first time I over-indulged while eating out (and it certainly won’t be the last), but in other instances I have done so with blissful ignorance. 

In compliance with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act  passed in March of 2010, all chain restaurants with 20 or more locations must now print nutritional data on their menus. Panera Bread qualifies, so after eating lunch there, I know just how many calories I ingested.    

is located in the heart of Willow Grove, in the shopping center on Moreland Road.

Because it is family friendly, it is a standard choice for my mother’s group. The menu pleases parents and kids alike, and the atmosphere is casual enough to avoid looks from other patrons when the kids inevitably end up under the table.

On my most recent visit, I was joined by two other mommies and their kids. We each ordered our meals at the counter and then pulled a few tables together to accommodate all seven of us. 

Our arrival time of 11:30 a.m. was a lesson hard learned in our early days of motherhood when we would come in closer to noon and find long lines and few available tables. Not the best situation for hungry children. Now, we watched the lunch time rush crowd gather from the sanctuary of our seats. 

One by one our names were hollered from behind the pick-up counter, and we took turns staying with the kids and bringing back our food. 

One mommy was tempted by the lobster sandwich, a special item available for a limited time, and a surprisingly high ticket item coming in at $16.99. 

It was enormous, served on ciabatta, and full of finger-sized chunks of crustacean. There was little in the way of mayonnaise binder, but it was fresh and delicious. 

My friend took half of it home for later, and because of its size and price probably would have been happier splitting it with someone. 

The other mommy had been craving the sweet, soft, relish-spiked tuna salad, and so ordered a You Pick Two ($6.69) which allows you to mix and match a half sandwich, half salad, or cup of soup.  Her accompanying garden vegetable soup was full of the namesake, herby and hearty, and topped with a dollop of pesto. 

Both of their girls got grilled cheese sandwiches ($4.09) which were well received, crunchy and grill marked from the panini press. Tubes of yogurt and juice boxes came on the side.

Panera was really playing up its new Steak and White Cheddar Panini, calling it “a steak worthy of our baguette,” which sounded promising.  

I also chose a You Pick Two ($8.18), and accompanied the half steak panini with the half Greek salad.

Maybe Panera should work on this sandwich a little more before “celebrating” it as much. The meager little sandwich was dwarfed by the huge salad next to it on the plate. The tough, thick meat inside didn’t even extend to the edges of the baguette, and the two cooked onions inside seemed an afterthought. 

The Greek salad, on the other hand, was fresh and tangy with vinaigrette and feta cheese. Pepperoncini peppers, tomatoes, kalamata olives and red onion added texture and flavor. As always, it was heavy on the black pepper, but a tasty salad nonetheless.  

For my son, I ordered the broccoli cheese soup ($4.09).  He dipped the accompanying baguette piece by torn-off piece into the thick cheesy soup.  Occasionally, he took a broccoli-laden bite with a spoon, but only after all the bread was gone.

I love this broccoli cheese soup, but am confused by its counterintuitive cooling behavior.  

could probably explain this better, but Kinetic Molecular Theory would predict that liquids are more fluid when they are hot and thicken as they cool. 

Contrary to this theory, Panera’s broccoli cheese soup is thick when it is hot, but thins when it cools. I cannot understand this irregularity, but will forgive the anomaly because it tastes so good.

I ordered the Signature Mac and Cheese for my daughter ($4.99). It is my favorite mac and cheese of all time. Ever. 

Pipette noodles swam in a rich white cheese sauce: heaven on a fork. The main ingredients are noodles, cheese and butter (not necessarily in that order), and despite this holy trinity, my picky kids wouldn’t touch it.   

So I ate it. Yes, along with my salad. And sandwich. And some of the broccoli cheese soup. 

All of this brings my lunch tally to 1,150 calories (with 1,800 being my ideal total for the day), along with 2750 mg of sodium (The US recommended daily allowance is 2400 mg.), and 65 grams of fat. 

Because I consider these other mommies friends and wish to continue our playdates, I won’t publish their lunch statistics. 

In accordance with the new law, however, it isn’t hard to figure out. The menu behind the counter lists the calories next to the prices of each item. 

If you want more details, the online Panera Nutrition Calculator lists fat, sodium, vitamins A and C, and iron content for each menu item. 

Just select everything you ordered (and then unwittingly consumed), and the Nutrition Calculator will add the figures, giving you a grand total. 

Without looking at the nutrition facts, though, I can guess that the macaroni and cheese is high in calories, and the broccoli cheese soup isn’t fat free. 

If given the choice, I’d prefer to not know the exact details of my consumption.  I’d rather not add an extra helping of guilt to the excessive calories in my impending saddlebags.  

But, I don’t have a choice. And neither does Panera Bread. Despite doing what a successful restaurant strives to do—serve tasty food—supplying the nutrition facts likely leads the average consumer to buy less of Panera’s product, rather than more. 

Lucky for Panera Bread, I am going to ignore the calorie listings and still order what I want. I don’t eat like this every day, and am, like all other customers, able to decide for myself where and when to indulge. 

I understand that the new regulation is supposed to help consumers make informed decisions when ordering, but when I go to lunch with my mommy-friends, I want to enjoy the company and camaraderie, not agonize over the calories. I will make the informed decision to relax during lunch and disregard the supplied nutritional information. 

More mac and cheese, please!

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Panera Bread earns 3 out of 5 Whisks family friendly atmosphere, delicious macaroni and cheese, and comforting consistent fare.

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Second Helping of Information

Location – 30 Park Ave., Willow Grove

Hours – Monday through Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Phone – 215-657-7600

Website – www.panerabread.com

Reservations – Not available

On the Kids Menu – $4.09 kids menu, high chairs available, changing table in the ladies room

elaine leibrandt June 16, 2011 at 01:02 AM
Heather, I just read your review of Panera's & it was great! A young friend I used to work with, with kids just a little older than yours, recently suggested we meet there for lunch someday soon, so I'm going to send it to her. Sounds like they have some new dishes since the last time I was there. I may try one of them. Very good review! And I agree with your assessment of the listing of calories........... Enjoy the summer Elaine Leibrandt
Carly Brown June 17, 2011 at 05:56 AM
Heather, I just read your review of Panera's and it was great! My husband and I decided to go on a trip up to the Hudson Valley and stopped in at a Panera's for lunch, and I enjoyed the Lobster sandwich. Wow, it was great and I didn't even see the calorie count, perhaps I just closed my eyes and enjoyed it. My husband enjoyed the steak sandwich with a bowl of their wonderful tomato bisque, I didn't even get the chance to taste it. Before I realized that I even wanted to try it, it was GONE. Panera's a great place to stop in and take a load off and enjoy a wonderful comfort meal. I look forward to my next visit. Do you have your rewards card yet? I got mine the other day and have already gotten a free drink. Cool! I do like the reason behind the calorie count, and I find that I can happily just close my eyes and enjoy the fruits of my order. Thank you for your article. Carly Brown

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