One of the country's largest purveyors of "artisan breads" has just landed on Fifth Avenue. The shelves of the city's latest Panera Bread restaurant are stocked with about two dozen different loaves, as well as bagels and a wide variety of pastries. On the wall above the bread shelves, a sign proclaims: "Artisan Breads. It starts every morning as fresh, never-frozen dough, and becomes a warm, fragrant, bringer of happiness all day long."
That leads to the question of what exactly artisan bread is. Over the last few years, the definition has been stretched to encompass just about any bread that doesn't have "Wonder" stamped on the bag. Originally, however, artisan bread meant bread that was made in small batches, by hand, and usually with a long fermentation. So how does it a publicly-traded corporation with over 1500 stores in North America come to call its product "artisan bread"?
Founded almost 20 years ago, Panera Bread is the more successful younger sibling of Au Bon Pain, which the company sold off in 1999. It has built its model around selling fresh bread, sandwiches, salads, soups, and sweets. The breads are baked fresh daily in ovens in every store. Due to considerations of space, cost, and consistency, however, the breads' raw ingredients are first mixed in a regional "fresh dough facility" (out in Fairfield, New Jersey for the New York area stores). The dough is then brought to the store, where overnight bakers divide and shape each loaf by hand and then slide them into the ovens.
Panera's loaves come out of the oven looking like they're ready for a food stylist's shoot. The baguette's crust is golden and blistered just so; the whole grain loaf beckons with just the right amount of oats sprinkled on top. They make you want to pick up a loaf and smell, and smell again. And wonder what's missing. Over the last few years, I've bought a lot of bread, carrying it home on the train with the enticing fresh-baked aroma wafting out of the bag. Panera breads hardly smell at all; you have to tear open a loaf and stick your nose into it to catch an aroma—at best, a grudging whiff of yeast or whole grain.
The main ingredient for all the Panera breads I tasted was enriched unbleached flour, mixed with the usual water, salt, and yeast. To most of the breads, the bakers also add varieties of "natural base" and conditioners to give them the right flavor and texture and extend their shelf life. The stone milled rye was the best of the bunch, topped with caraway seeds that also gave the crumb a bit of flavor mixed with chopped rye kernels. The "moist and hearty" whole grain had a bit of grain aroma and a touch of honey sweetness. The "sweet and hearty" honey wheat verged on cloying, its crumb so moist it became gummy when chewed. The baguette came out of the bag looking photo-perfect, and with a textbook crumb structure when broken open. Unfortunately, its crust was chewy, not crisp, and you have to bury your nose in it to catch an aroma. And the crumb: You count the lifespan of good baguettes in hours; the Panera baguette was so moist that it could last for days.
In short, the Panera Bread loaves are good-looking. Now they have to work on the rest of the senses.