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I am a graphic designer. That means that I layout projects that end up being printed as posters, brochures, postcards and more. I do this with a great team of people and 4 times a year we produce a brochure we call our Quarterly. When the Quarterly is on press, one of the designers goes on a press check, which means we go to the printers and look at the sheets as they come off the press and approve the printing and the color. Our Quarterly happens to be printed near a Panera, so we do lunch from Panera each time we’re on press. Today I tried to Eat Like Alton, even spent time thinking about it in advance. This was going to be a great time to get in some leafy greens (on the everyday list) and I recall at one point having a salad there with salmon and wheat berries – double score (oily fish and whole grains). This was going to be a breeze. Then I looked at the menu.

While all the salad descriptions sounded good at first pass, they were all basic variations on romaine lettuce with chicken. Some came with bacon, some with almonds, one even comes with a drizzle of “BBQ sauce”. (Ewww.) With the exception of one (Fuji Apple Chicken) they all are made with romaine lettuce. I know everyone isn’t trying to Eat Like Alton, but isn’t everyone into organic and micro greens and variety. I was surprised to find all of their salads so…normal and average. But, it is tradition and I needed to get leafy greens in, so I chose the Chopped Chicken Cobb salad. Here’s how my thought process went: I don’t like red peppers, I don’t want tasty crispy wontons to tempt me, BBQ sauce on salad sounds gross, caesar is usually good IF the dressing is good and I don’t want apples in my salad…Chopped Chicken Cobb it is. Looking back, I should have chosen Fuji Apple Chicken with fruit, nuts and leafy greens and just forced my way through the apples.

Then the salad came.

When I eat out, I like to eat things I can’t or won’t make at home. This salad was utterly disappointing. Salads I make at home look better. The lettuce was pale, the tomatoes were winter tomatoes (anemic and cold-tasting, not juicy and summer-tasting), the eggs were rubbery and the dressing was pretty ordinary. Come on Panera, I know your called Panera Bread not Panera Salad, but you can do better than this. Toss in some other greens – spinach would be easy as would chopped herbs; use thicker bacon; toss in some avocado; make salad dressing that doesn’t taste like it comes out of a vat; and have some other protein options…chicken gets boring, especially chicken that looks like the precooked chicken they sell in any grocery store.

I’m pretty sure in the past I have had good salads at Panera, even great ones. I’m not sure when the menu change happened, but I’m hoping it is seasonal or a temporary thing due to the economy. When I get a salad at a restaurant, I want it to be bright, bursting with flavor and freshness. I want to feel healthy eating it and I want to feel better about myself because I made a better food choice while I have to watch other people eating a burger and fries. And I want good tomatoes. Is that too much to ask?

Normally I wouldn’t think of Panera as fast food, to me fast food is fried and has a drive-through. But my salad today makes me wonder if this is bad food karma for crossing the ‘never’ line.

(This photo is 1/2 of the salad, I’m saving the other 1/2 for lunch tomorrow. And yes, I do often eat at my computer and yeah, it’s a Mac!)

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