What’s up with the Panera Mac n Cheese Incident?

I wanted to take a break from reviewing food joints for a bit to get my salt content back to a reasonable levels. Instead, I wanted to discuss a current event that occurred at a Panera Bread outlet and subsequently went viral. A young women “cook,” videoed herself taking a frozen packet of mac and cheese and placing it into a pot of boiling water….removing minutes later, plating it, and commenting “this is how we make mac and cheese at Panera.” The chef was terminated for making the video. Panera went full law office on this incident, basically saying they would need to add a bunch of preservatives to the mac if they made it fresh etc. etc. etc. This has been the talk of the town lately and for good reason, Panera Bread claims to be chemical free, and fresh-made in house… kinda. The number of people in disbelief is astounding. Allow me to explain.

No quick serve, fast food, fast casual, or chain restaurant does scratch cooking anymore. They haven’t in a decade or more. The reasons for this make a lot of sense if you stop and think about it. Jack in the Box had an E.coli scare, Chipotle same deal, I believe Burger King had a scare…those incidents cost major $$$. In a world where corporations report earnings every 90 days and consumers are very fickle with their hard earned dollars, this cannot happen! So a couple things happened, corporations innovated and found ways to cut a metric ton of costs and raise profit margins tenfold. They found ways to cook everything in a factory in a centralized environment. To be clear, it’s not cooked to doneness, it’s essentially flash cooked, and vacuum sealed, and frozen. Food is then shipped to the store in a convenient portion-sized baggie and all the kitchen staff has to do is drop it in a pot of boiling water… just like the girl at Panera.

This creates a “consistent customer experience” buzz words used all the time in business now. The portions are the same size, same doneness, and the same price, effectively removing any customer complaints about the food. Better yet it’s the same at every store. I have been to BJ’s Brewhouse locations in Elk Grove, Folsom, and in Southern California. The pizza I had at each was identical, down to the same number of pepperonis on each.

It works for the customer since they like the continuity, but it didn’t work out so great for the kitchen staff. The cook at a restaurant like that never made a ton of money, but since the food used to be fairly scratch made, the money was equal to a modest middle class salary. Now however, no more need for a chef or the salary that goes with it, actually the skilled kitchen staff were not needed either…all were let go. Let’s face it, you do not need a degree to drop fries in a fryer or place a bag in of boiling water, set a timer, and when it goes off, plate it according to a picture. The money saved on salary and preparing all food remotely amounts to millions annually.

Link: Panera Bread girl fired

Think about it; food borne illness risk is very low, the experience is the same across locations, and customers are fooled. It’s a “can’t lose” business model. Such businesses find it a lot easier to pay their kitchen staff to resuscitate frozen food and cut up some additions, to be added to soups and sides, to make them appear fresh. In all honesty, do you really think their kitchen is capable of cranking out that many different entrees at light speed? Have you seen a menu at one of these places lately? Fish, steaks, chicken, shrimp, pizza, salad, different soups, wow! How many cooks in the kitchen would be needed? My point is, this girl shared with the world what many have known for years, corporate profits and uniform customer experience are far more important than making a product from scratch.

Sorry to disappoint you but the 90 day guys have made quite a few people naïve on this. Notice nowhere here did I take a shot at food quality, I am just trying to bring to light the fact that your food isn’t being made in that kitchen. The typical restaurant kitchen is an assembly area enforcing the corporation’s standards of uniform food quality. Do take notice that the jobs that used to pay half decent have been exchanged for those not paying much above minimum wage. It used to be a resume enhancer to say you were a cook at Applebee’s or Chili’s; but not anymore. I would say be a server, at least the tips are nice.

Johnnie Does

PS the chicken sandwich challenge is on hold until Popeye’s finally gets their act together and starts making it again.