Last week, I stumbled upon Panera’s Hidden Menu. This is their new off-the-menu – menu – that can only be found online. From first glance, it appears that the items are all gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, and paleo. Haven’t confirmed this, but it is probably a good bet.
The options looked very healthy, and I’m all for having fun with my food. I am not a big fan of Panera’s regular menu, but they I like their creativity with this campaign and it proved to be a great marketing strategy to get me through the door.
My first trip was during lunch and I ordered the Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad which was described as all-natural, antibiotic-free chicken, baby spinach, romaine, tomatoes, apple-wood smoked bacon, diced eggs, fresh squeezed lemon juice, and extra virgin olive oil. The girl at the cash register said I was her first person to order off this “secret” menu and she was excited to hear what I thought of the food. Unfortunately when I got my food, it was not the Power Mediterranean Salad. The salad that I received had chicken and spinach, but also had sliced almonds, feta and other ingredients. I explained that it was not what I ordered but the salad-maker seemed convinced that it was correct. I took my salad to whom I assumed was the manager and explained my situation, showed him my receipt (which was rung in correctly, as far as I could tell) and showed him my phone with the photo of what I should have received. He quickly corrected it and said it was a new thing. Normally I wouldn’t “complain” and would just eat it, but I was really wanting to try the item I ordered and decided to speak up to get what I want. While I was waiting for salad #2, I saw him fumbling around trying to find the laminated card that showed how to make it. The other employees seemed a bit confused about the whole matter and it was about 10 minutes of wasted time on my 30 minute lunch break. When I finally received the salad, it was tasty and looked very similar to the photograph.
Here is the photograph from the Panera Blog:
Here is what I got (the second time):
Pretty close, appearance-wise. Overall I enjoyed it, but Panera you need to do something about your hard-boiled eggs! They are so tiny and flavorless with a spongy texture, not fresh-boiled tasting at all. Another nearby restaurant makes up a beautiful cobb salad that has good hard-boiled eggs, so I know it can be done in the fast food service industry.
My second trip was over the weekend for Sunday breakfast. I am at home on the weekends, so we went to a different Panera location that is closer to our home and ordered the Power Breakfast Egg Bowl with Steak which is described as two all-natural eggs, seared top sirloin, sliced avocado & tomatoes. Again, the cashier said I was the first person to order off the menu. Same as the last cashier, she seemed excited that someone was ordering an item from this menu. Mr. Nine noticed a small QR code placed on the front of the cash register that said “Hidden Menu”. I completely overlooked it amongst the display of cookies, gift cards, and other things that clutter the POP display. Indeed, the menu is hidden! Once again, the “cook” was unknowing of how to prepare my meal. A cashier (manager?) walked over to help him get started, showing him the laminated sheet with the steps. It took awhile, and there was a heavy sigh as the cook had to go into the back to get an avocado, and then cut it for my order, but it was made with the correct ingredients. They say you eat with your eyes first, and sadly this bowl was not very visually appealing! It looked nothing like the photo online, and my “seared top sirloin” was more like cold roast beef deli meat. Eh.
Here is the tempting food photography that Panera lures you in with:
Even my camera was a little scared of this concoction, as proved by the blurry photo. The whole dish was served cold (except for the eggs, which never stay warm for long). The flavor was okay, for what it was, but it was ridiculously hard to eat! I want all Panera employees and management to sit down and try to eat this bowl with the fork and spoon provided. There is a lot of cutting required (of the egg, tomato, and lunch meat) and it is impossible to cut it into bites with just a fork and spoon inside of the bowl. I thought about getting up to ask for a knife (do they even have knives?) but it would still prove difficult to cut inside of a bowl because of its concave shape. It took awhile to cut and eat, but there wasn’t much food here so it was a good thing that I got to make each bite last a little longer. Would I order this again? Probably not anytime soon, but it has inspired me to create my own version at home!
The Panera hidden / secret menu is a cute and novel idea, but needs some work. Employees need to be better educated on how to make these dishes, and some further thought needs to go into some things like the hard-boiled eggs, the “steak”, and how easy it is to eat. I may go back another time (Hummus Chicken Bowl, anyone?) because they say that to see change you must vote with your wallet and I applaud them for creating healthier items that cater to the gluten-free and dairy-free crowds. Maybe if I vote a third time, it will help them realize there is an interest and work on improving and expanding.
If you have dietary restrictions, or are just looking for a lower-calorie, healthier fast food option, do give it a try and let me know what you think!