Panera just acquired one of its biggest competitors — here’s why it won the comfort-food battle

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Hollis Johnson

    Panera announced Wednesday that it would be acquiring Au Bon Pain. The two cafe chains serve similar menus of soups, salads, and sandwiches. Before the acquisition was announced, we pitted the two former rivals against each other and found we preferred Panera.

Au Bon Pain and Panera, star-crossed cafe chains, are set to be reunited at last.

Panera Bread announced on Wednesday that it had entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Au Bon Pain Holding Co. Inc. Both cafe restaurants were once together under one parent company back in the ’80s and ’90s, and with this acquisition, the two will be reunited once again.

The Au Bon Pain transaction is expected to close during the fourth quarter, and terms of the deal were not disclosed. JAB Holdings paid roughly $7.5 billion to buy Panera earlier this year.

These chains serve all the classics: steaming soups, fresh salads, hot paninis, and more.

But a question arises: Whose food is the better lunch choice?

Panera Bread, with over 1,800 locations, and Au Bon Pain, which has roughly 300 cafes worldwide, serve very similar menus.

Before the acquisition was announced, we put Panera Bread and Au Bon Pain in an extensive head-to-head test to find out who serves the better lunch.


The two fast-casual-cafe chains offer very similar menus, so we chose a handful of items we think are classic and hearty cafe fare.

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Hollis Johnson

First up: sandwiches. Here are both chains’ takes on the hot chicken and mozzarella panini.

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Hollis Johnson

Au Bon Pain’s Chicken Pomodoro sandwich — with chicken, mozzarella, asiago, tomato spread, and roasted tomatoes — was underwhelming. Despite being made fresh to order, it tastes like prepackaged chicken parm. The ciabatta bread is spongy, and the spreads were lacking flavor.

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Hollis Johnson

Panera’s version, the Frontega Chicken Panini, is obviously better after the first bite. Everything tastes fresher somehow, despite having nearly the same ingredients —although the addition of chipotle mayonnaise isn’t really necessary. One issue, however, is that the focaccia bread gets soggy fast.

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Hollis Johnson

On to another simple classic: the turkey club.

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Hollis Johnson

The turkey club from Au Bon Pain is a joyous lesson in simplicity: moist yet thin turkey, just enough slices of cheddar, surprisingly crispy bacon, and the perfect amount of tomato slices and greens to add a fresh taste without making the soft white bread soggy. It’s delicious. How can bacon, turkey, and cheese go wrong?

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Hollis Johnson

Well, this may be how. Panera’s version of the turkey club, called the Turkey Bravo, isn’t an awful sandwich, but the classic club formula has been strangely tweaked. There are flavors at odds here: The somewhat sweet “signature sauce” doesn’t meld well with the mellow smoked Gouda, which gets lost in the bland turkey. The bacon is limp, and the tomato basil bread has a very odd sweetness to it as well. Even the complimentary pickle can’t save this sandwich.

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Hollis Johnson

Of course, nothing beats a hearty bowl of home-style mac ‘n cheese. Who does it best?

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Au Bon Pain’s mac ‘n cheese, simply put, is bland and watery. There just isn’t much to it — no heft, no “stick to your ribs” heartiness. It doesn’t taste cheesy.

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Hollis Johnson

If you want cheesy and hearty, go for Panera’s. It’s rich and creamy, with a tangy taste of cheddar. It’s a little on the salty side, but that’s forgivable.

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Hollis Johnson

Keeping with the cheesy theme, we move on to another comforting classic: the broccoli-cheddar soup.

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Hollis Johnson

Au Bon Pain’s take on this rich soup is confusing at best. It tastes salty and peppery, so you would think it’s flavorful — but you’d be wrong. It somehow manages to be bland in spite of this. And it’s essentially all watery liquid; nothing but tiny little broccoli buds floating about.

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By comparison, Panera’s is miles ahead. It’s thick and cheesy, with large chunks of broccoli and carrots. It’s smooth and rich with buttery tones.

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Last but not least for soups is the ultimate in winter comfort: the one and only chicken noodle soup.

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First, Au Bon Pain. The broth is a tad weak in terms of flavor, but it has a healthy amount of large spiral noodles and vegetables like carrots and onions. The chicken is pretty good too, with sizable chunks. It’s a rather impressive fast-casual take on the homey classic.

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Hollis Johnson

Panera’s is, however, surprisingly disappointing. The broth is very oily, and there’s only a smattering of vegetables and chicken throughout. The noodles are odd, stubby, and flat, and they don’t satisfy as much as Au Bon Pain’s spirals.

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Hollis Johnson

Of course, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all these rich and cozy choices, there are always salads. And what’s a more classic and filling choice than a chicken Caesar?

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Hollis Johnson

Au Bon Pain’s salads are prepackaged, making it super easy for those on-the-go eaters. However, this does not bode well for quality or taste.

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Hollis Johnson

The only truly good things about Au Bon Pain’s chicken Caesar salad are the lettuce and the croutons. The lettuce looks fresh and tastes crisp, and the croutons are delicious little cubes of savory seasonings, packaged separately to save them from getting soggy. But the chicken is tasteless and gray, and the cheese is scarce.

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Hollis Johnson

Panera’s chicken Caesar is ordered like anything else there, ostensibly prepared fresh.

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Hollis Johnson

The lettuce is a mix of what seems to be iceberg lettuce and romaine — it’s a little weak but not bad. The croutons are mixed in, so they become soggy quickly. The chicken is fantastic, however; sliced in very thin strips, it’s well seasoned and there are telltale grill marks.

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Hollis Johnson

So who takes the fast-casual-cafe crown? Despite not performing perfectly — Au Bon Pain made a fantastic chicken noodle soup and turkey club sandwich — Panera’s quality still trumps that of its former competitor. Plus, every Panera entrée comes with a free choice of side: bread, fruit, or bags of chips. Not a bad deal, and the food typically tastes great.

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Hollis Johnson