It was an intriguing invitation.
Baking with the bakers at Panera? Really?
Up until recently, Panera has been an institution of the suburbs and this has not really been on my radar. I always thought it was because there was too much competition in the city. I mean, how can a national chain compete with beloved, artisanal local favorites such as Hi Rise and Flour or Bostonian institutions like Mike's or Modern?
The history is a bit convoluted, but essentially Panera used to be the Au Bon Pain Co. In 1993, it bought the St. Louis Bread Company, which was also starting to expand. In 1999, Au Bon Pain Co. renamed itself Panera and sold off a bunch of other brands, including Au Bon Pain. Maybe some sort of understanding that Panera wouldn't step on Au Bon Pain's city-focused turf for some time?
In any event, it's been more than 10 years since those days, and Panera has finally moved into the city. Just this past May, Panera opened a flagship location in Back Bay. In July, Panera opened its first branch in Cambridge, right in Porter Square.
The folks at Panera were kind enough to invite me to come and see the inner working of the bakery. Most of the baking happens in the wee hours of the morning. Did I want to come at 2AM? I politely declined that option (no way with a full time job!) but after some more emails back and forth, we set up an appointment for early Saturday morning. I would meet one of the day bakers and still get a chance to make some pastries!
I met Allie, the main day baker here at Panera Porter. Allie was super perky and clearly loved her job.
As a day baker, Allie refills whatever items have run out. Here she is making the ever popular egg souffles, which often run out multiple times in a morning. The night bakers usually make the bulk of the pastries, but she still makes a ton of stuff during the day. For examples, baguettes are freshly baked every hour and even labeled with the time at which they were baked!
Yes, I was at Panera well before 8AM on a Saturday morning!
I put on my apron and hat (do I look like a Panera employee? ha ha ha ha) and we got to work. I knew I had only scheduled an hour and a half with them, so I was really wondering how in the world we would have enough time to bake bread or even pastries! These things take a long time! As Allie started showing me stuff, it all began to make sense.
Nothing at Panera is made from scratch on site. Instead, most of the intense prep work is done at an off-site location in the suburbs. In this main baking facility, various types of dough are made on very large scale. The dough is then rolled out into sheets and frozen. They have different types of dough depending on the application: flaky pastry dough, baguette dough, babka dough, etc.
Breads come premade but not yet baked in these HUGE metal containers, which are delivered daily.
Similarly, bagels are also already made when they arrive in Cambridge.
An on-site baker at Panera basically does the finishing steps for all the baked goods at the local Paneras. No wonder an hour and a half was plenty for me to "learn how baking is done" at Panera. There really isn't that much prep work to do!
So, I learned how to make a cinnamon roll.
Start with the pre-made pastry dough, which conveniently comes in these perfect squares. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, roll, cut, twist, spray with egg wash, and top with a pecan. It takes a little practice to make them pretty, but it's not all that bad!
They have this super fancy oven that has all these programmable settings. Allie has set up a bunch of macros herself for the various baked goods.
It really looks like an oven from the future! The pastries spin around for a preprogrammed amount of time. I'm sure at night that oven is completely filled with baked goods!
Finished product! I'm amazed that the same little square of frozen pastry dough can be manipulated in so many ways. When you look at the spread of beautiful, "artisanally" baked goods at the counter, you never would have guessed that they all came from this same pre-made dough. It's really quite ingenious.
Space is super tight in the city, and this basement kitchen is really tiny! At night, there are actually two people in here, baking the night away. I can only imagine how crowded it can get.
Of course they wouldn't let me leave empty-handed. I left carrying a box of Panera pastries (pictured above) as well as an entire chocolate babka (pictured at the very top), a new item they have just introduced this fall.
In general, I find their pastries to be a bit too sweet for my tastes, but it was still fun to try everything.
Thanks Panera for a fascinating underground look into the way things work at your bakery cafes.
Disclaimer: I did not pay for the pastries or the babka that I took home
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