Guest post graciously contributed by Jon Heller.
I’ll never forget the day when I stepped in to a Panera for the first time. Actually, that’s a lie. But it seemed like a grand way to start a post like this so I thought, hey, why not.
So I don’t remember the day Panera opened in my hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, but I remember countless trips there as a teenager. It was, until recently, one of my absolute favorite take-out places, for two reasons: First, it offers healthy options, which is something rare when it comes to take-out food.
Now don’t get me wrong – I realize that not everything at Panera is healthy. In fact, I nearly shunned the place permanently when I found out my favorite sandwich, the Sierra Turkey, has more fat and calories than two Big Mac’s.
I felt hurt. As if Panera, with it’s “Ooh look as us we’re so fresh and healthy!” demeanor, was actually loading their innocent looking turkey sandwiches with … actually, I still have no idea what makes those things so unhealthy.
But I got over it. In fact, I carry around a wallet-sized printout of their nutrition menu. No joke.
There are several other healthy options on the menu, especially if you get only half a sandwich, for which they provide the convenient “you pick two” option. And it’s that other option on the “you pick two” combination that forever indebted me to Panera: Their French Onion Soup (capitalized and bolded because it’s just that amazing).
It is glorious. I have been to France, okay? I had their “French” onion soup, and I’ll tell you, those French have a thing or two to learn about French onion soup from a little bread company based out of Richmond Heights, Missouri.
Leanne, who worked for Panera briefly during one summer (and for which I will always look at her with awe for, being at the heart of such a delicious beast from 9-5), once told me that the soup is shipped in these huge bags from their processing plant.
Now I have to admit, a “bag of soup” is kind of an odd concept – it doesn’t exactly scream freshness – but I sometimes have fantasies of sneaking into the back room and grabbing a bunch of bags of their soup and making a break for it. Like those old black and white bank heist films where the robber is running away with bags of money over his shoulder, except in my case, it would be bags of French onion soup. Sometimes in these fantasies the cops end up shooting me as a I run away, which makes for an awesome scene in which me and my bags of soup are riddled by bullets (in slow motion of course), beef broth spraying all over the place, before I finally fall down to the pavement, cradling the empty bags.
Sorry. Sometimes I get a little carried away thinking about food.
Alas, this has all come to an end, for two main reasons. The first is that, apparently, assembling the various sandwich, soup, and salad combinations for customers has proven too difficult a task for your average worker. I do feel bad for anyone currently stuck in a food service job, but it’s nice when you pay $8 for a sandwich to, you know, get what you paid for.
Unfortunately, this seems to be an unreasonable expectation for my local Panera in Danvers, MA. In fact, I can’t remember the last time they got my order right.
Still, I didn’t want to let this stop me. So a few nights ago, Leanne and I drove ten minutes further to the next closest Panera. I order one of my standards (chicken salad, a surprisingly healthy option, and of course my dear French onion soup), and am surprised to see my soup in a new, smaller container. Thinking this is a mistake (the container is roughly the same size cup you would get ketchup in at a restaurant), I go back to the counter and ask them. It turns out, this is the new container for soup when you order a “you pick two”.
Oh, Panera. You horrible, horrible monsters. You’ve gone and ruined my most precious of all meals. Charge me another dollar, or two, or three, but how could you give me less of something that brings me such happiness, such bliss?
Thus ends a decade long relationship between one man and a restaurant. I’ll miss that warm beef broth. The hints of thyme. The asiago flavored bread crumbs. And my favorite, that wonderful surprise when you lift your spoon up from the bottom of the cup and watch as a spoonful of melted cheese breaks the surface.
A small part of me has died today.