This week, I went to my local Panera with the intent to lounge around for an hour or 2 and crank out a post about how McDonald’s is doing another Szechuan Sauce promotion. [Spoiler alert: you have to order on the app to get it, in a move to not only incentivize app usage but also to minimize the number of Rick & Morty nerds yelling at McDonald’s employees. That’s it. That’s the post.] Upon entry, I noticed extensive signage for something that, up until that point, had gone completely under my radar.
Panera now does chicken sandwiches.
Now, obviously, Panera has had sandwiches with chicken in them for a while now. But I’m talking about the chicken sandwiches that have been trending throughout the fast food industry for the past 3 years. Of course, Paneras don’t have fryers in them, so the chicken cutlets are seared and sous-vide-ed (and presumably re-sous-vide-ed alongside the soups and mac & cheese for service). They’re available in 2 flavors, “The Signature Take” (garlic aioli, parmesan crisps, greens) and “ The Spicy Take” (fried spicy pickles, buffalo sauce, garlic aioli again), both on brioche buns.
Here’s my spicy take: why are they doing this.
I feel like Panera’s been on a slippery slope away from their core competencies over the course of the past few years. Mainly, being a place that soccer moms and retirees (and me, apparently) go to lounge around for an hour or 2 and gossip (or write this), grazing on pastries or attempting to strategize the best way to eat soup in a bread bowl (how do I tear apart the empty bowl without getting residual soup on my hands). Sure, Panera started off 2020 strong (pandemic withstanding) with the Panera+ coffee subscription, which, being redeemable every 4 hours, encourages guests to draw out their visits as long as possible. But, in my opinion, they began to move away from this in 2021 when they introduced flatbread pizzas. While the flatbread still tied into the “Bread” aspect of the chain (which was dropped from their name entirely at around the same time, so I guess that point is moot anyways), it didn’t really feel like a good fit with their target demographic. Like, sure, some of the soccer moms might look at “flatbreads” as a healthier alternative to pizza (… somehow?), but pretty much anyone looking at these would say, “ah, this is a pizza. Panera makes pizza now, I guess.”
Which, of course, brings us back to the present. Panera wants to now cash in on the chicken sandwich trend. You know, that thing that all the fast food places are doing. Is this the image that Panera wants to cultivate? Since the sandwiches aren’t actually fried, are they trying to be the “healthy” alternative? None of the ads I’ve seen so far seem to be suggesting that. In fact, the cutlets in the pictures are “seared” so darkly that they seem to really want you to think that they’re fried.
Ever since that “scandal” a few years back where a Panera employee revealed on TikTok that all their soups and mac & cheese are boiled in a bag, ruining the illusion that everything was being made fresh to order, Panera’s been slowly losing its grip on its brand positioning of “the fresh, healthy alternative to fast food,” where you’re actively encouraged to take as long as you want. I mean, yes, obviously the pandemic has hindered people’s ability to loiter. But these recent moves to try to recover just come off as… desperate? I doubt they’ll do any real harm to their reputation in the long run, but seriously, Panera, it’s ok for you to just be Panera. You don’t have to be the latest in a long line of chains to do the chicken sandwich thing.
Ok, I need to get out of here, I can’t take anymore constantly looking over my shoulder while trash-talking Panera from inside a Panera.