Minneapolis residents may have noticed an indomitable billboard in the North Loop urging you to "eat adventurously" with Panera's new broth bowls. If you're like me, maybe you stopped to ponder what exactly a broth bowl is.
Simply put, it's bullshit.
There is nothing innately adventurous about Panera. The soup-sandwich-salad chain occupies a comfortable middle ground between Starbucks and Burger King and basically makes its nut off 9-5ers who forget to pack lunch for the day. Their target demographic is my high school girlfriend, who was convinced that eating emulsified cheese out of a giant dinner roll was somehow artisanal or health-savvy, so of course their foray into Asian savory soup is half-baked and sorta insulting.
I approach the Nicollet Mall Panera location with much apprehension. I haven't eaten at a Panera since my high school girlfriend broke up with me for being a critical dick, and I prefer to keep their soapy bread and dishwater coffee at a distance. It seems like no one finishes their meal at this particular location, because all the pigeons in the courtyard are late-era Brando fat.
Panera's broth bowls come in two styles -- one with soba noodles in soy-miso and another with lentils and quinoa in a curiously citrus-y tomato stock. Both options come with chicken, but the soba version is available with edamame, and the lentil incarnation can be topped with a cage-free hard-boiled egg.
I buy a chicken lentil and quinoa bowl (with a Mediterranean flatbread on the side for $2.99 extra), and my girlfriend elects edamame soba bowl for herself. I get a bag of kettle chips, she gets a baguette (neither of us is disillusioned enough to get an apple).
The pride of Panera's new menu darlings is umami -- the exotic, unctuous bitterness mythically tied to the back region of the tongue. The soba bowl worships at the altar of this richness, being steeped in a salty broth with mushrooms and cabbage that bloat with miso. The edamame comes with a nice, probably fake, char on the outside, giving the bowl an excellent faux Japanese look. This broth bowl wants you to know it's a foreign dish, but it doesn't wanna frighten you. Exotic is enticing, but ethnic? That doesn't jibe with Panera's brand.
The lentil and quinoa bowl is filled up with brown rice, kale, spinach, and sun-dried tomato bouillon. It's basically an SEO-optimized word salad for Millennial food trends, and actually the better of the two options in a tallest midget sort of way, but the desperate grasp for relevancy is frankly kind of embarrassing.
In fact, it's odd that Panera chooses to define its twin offerings primarily by their broth. The noodles and lentil medley sits in a pretty shallow pool of stock that's truthfully more like a sauce. And the broth is objectively the worst part of both dishes -- the highlight of the soy-miso is when my flatbread accidentally leaks tangy mayonnaise into the bowl.
But the idea of the dishes being mainly broth, i.e., food water, perpetuates that false sense of healthiness that Panera subsists on. By the time the soup bases have been cooked, pumped with sodium, frozen, and re-boiled in their giant colostomy bags, any nutritional benefit that was once present in the ingredients has been farted out of existence.
Nothing a little ace branding can't fix.
To galvanize their customer base, the marketing alchemists at Panera have launched an explanatory (read: patronizing) sister site to educate people about stepping outside their comfort zones.
Listen, Panera's broth bowls are soup. They're just fucking soup. Even though Panera tries to trick you by serving their broth bowls with a fork, I'm not the only one who sees through the charade.
Why the new name? Because soup that comes from anything other than a white people country is dicey territory for Panera. They're just tossing up a smokescreen to obscure the fact that ordering slightly Asian-ized versions of chicken noodle and lentil soup doesn't exactly make you Andrew Zimmern.
"Eat adventurously!" they chide. Translation: "Hey asshole, try this savory buzzword soup."
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