406 21st Ave. S. 320-1500
6 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat.; 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Sun.
Price range: $
The health and diet industry estimates that the Atkins Diet has nearly 10 million followers. That’s an impressive number, yet it doesn’t seem to have affected Panera Bread, which calls itself “the nation’s bread leader.” Still, with a company mission statement that reads, “A loaf of bread in every arm,” one can safely assume Panera’s long-term goal is to knock a sizable number of those Atkins dieters off their anti-carb platform.
If store numbers are an indication, Panera apparently intends to do this by bludgeoning us over the head with baguettes. Every day, according to press materials, the company bakes more bread than any other bakery-cafe in the country. This isn’t that surprising, considering just how many Panera locations there are in the country: 558. The store at the site of the former Burger King on 21st Avenue South is Nashville’s first, says the St. Louis-based company, but it won’t be the last. As many as 10 more are planned for our area, which represents a thin slice of a large loaf: nationwide, some 423 additional franchise commitments are currently in place.
Panera Bread began its rise in 1981 as Au Bon Pain, which introduced the concept of contemporary bakery-cafes and operated mainly along the East Coast as well as internationally. (I am probably one of many customers gullible enough to believe that the French name indicated a French origin; in reality, Au Bon Pain was founded by Louis Kane and Ron Shaich.)
In 1983, Au Bon Pain gobbled up the 20-store St. Louis Bread Company and changed the name to Panera Bread. By 1997, it became clear that the Panera concept had the potential to sweep the nation, so the company sold its Au Bon Pain holdings, with the exception of Panera Bread. Company leaders read the crystal ball correctly: Panera has received baskets of awards from industry publications, and its breads have won “best of” awards in nearly every market across 33 states.
Though the washed, earthy colors, wood furniture, brick fireplace, comfy conversation areas and contemporary lighting present a radically different feel from the building’s former tenant, Panera does share a design policy similar to Burger King’s: an adherence to uniformity in every store from California to Maine. It’s impersonal and sterile, but that hasn’t hurt Starbucks any, has it?
Panera lays squarely in one of the most rapidly growing niches in the dining industry: fast-casual. It’s food executed quickly, but not fast food. The counter-order/counter-pickup service style is indeed casual, though on my visits it was also friendly, efficient and correctly executed.
The bakery at Nashville’s Panera makes nine different varieties of bread every day, among them country, French, three-cheese and Kalamata olive. On three separate visits, I didn’t witness anyone buying a loaf of bread, but bags and boxes of bagels were moving fast.
It is the cafe menu that gets the bulk of business at lunch and dinner. Not surprisingly, bread is either the foundation or a building block of every item, which isn’t a bad thing, as the breads are quite good. But this shouldn’t keep Provence’s Terry Carr-Hall or Bread & Company’s John Clay up at night: I’m betting artisan bread enthusiasts will still pay the extra buck for the better product baked at these locally owned establishments.
Spread among three different categoriesCafe, Signature and Paninithere are 17 sandwiches on the board. Offerings range from the sillypeanut butter and jelly on French breadto the sophisticatedTuscan chicken on rosemary-and-onion focaccia with pesto mayonnaise, field greens and balsamic vinaigrette.
Though the fillings we sampled were fresh and of good quality, with harmonious flavors, there was consistently too little of them. Of the six sandwiches sampled, only the Italian combo on ciabatta had a substantial center. Woe be to the Atkins dieter who goes to Panera and orders a sandwich with the intent of leaving the bread on his or her plate. The portabella and mozzarella panini was the worst offender, with an embarrassingly stingy scattering of skinny mini-mushroom slices and a couple chunks of cheese. I have to take issue with the use of the word panini as well: I expected a sandwich flattened between the sides of a panini grill, with toasty bread and heated filling, but what I got was soft focaccia with nary a grill mark and puny filling. I wuz robbed!
Five soups are offered daily, with low-fat chicken noodle, broccoli cheddar and French onion always simmering on the stove. All bowls come with a 6-inch section of baguette, or for $1.15 more, the soup is ladled into an edible bread bowl. The low-fat chicken noodle was also low on taste and low on chicken, but the French onion was flavorful and hearty, with loads of onion, melted Gruyère cheese and big croutons.
Five different salads are tossed before your very eyes, unless you have opted to stake a claim at a table (which is advisable) and wait for your beeper to indicate that your order is ready. The greens are crisp and nicely chilled, the accoutrements fresh and added with a generous hand; the portion is large enough to serve as an entrée, particularly with the standard inclusion of the half-foot of baguette.
For my money, the best deal is the You Pick Two for $5.85; the three choices are a bowl of soup, a half-salad or a half-sandwich. Be warned that if one of the two you pick is a sandwich, you’ll have a plate that contains at least two days’ worth of starch.
That’s fine by Panera Bread, which reports that each American consumes nearly 53 pounds of bread a year. If the average American dines once a week at Panera, the company will have it covered.