13 Vegan Items At Panera Bread, Ranked From Worst To Best

Panera Bread, which operates over 2000 restaurants in the United States and Canada, offers a range of sit-down breakfast, pastries, and lunch fare. The fast-casual restaurant is known for simple crowd-pleasing fare sourdough bread bowls filled with creamy mac and cheese, decadent bear-claw pastries covered in slivered almonds. And what do all these favorites have in common? It's the butter, the eggs — and nothing anywhere close to being vegan.

Going plant-based at fast food or fast casual restaurants isn't easy. But with a little bit of research — and a whole lot of substitutions — you can muster up a few vegan menu options at Panera Bread. We can say for certain that these products are not of animal origin, but we cannot avoid the possibility of cross-contamination from shared preparation spaces. Therefore, if you have an allergy to dairy or eggs, you should avoid ordering anything without taking due caution. With that in mind, here is our ranking of vegan items served at Panera Bread.   

13. Asian sesame salad without chicken and wontons

No one should be surprised that the worst-ranking vegan option at Panera Bread is the Asian sesame salad — minus the chicken and the wonton strips which are prepared with eggs. Our first biggest complaint was that the salad didn't adjust its price for essentially a bowl of lettuce with a cumulative of four chopped almonds on top ($12.08 with a fruit cup side). If you look up highway robbery in the dictionary, you'll find a picture of this sad, sad, salad. 

The dressing for this salad was absolutely awful; it tasted like artificial sweetener mixed with sesame oil. We ended up scrapping the dressing in the trash after we poured a few drops on the salad to taste because of how sickeningly sweet it was. Even with the chicken, we doubt there would be any reason to order this sad salad at Panera Bread.  

12. Greek salad without feta

The Greek salad is relatively similar across restaurants: romaine, grape tomatoes, red onion slices, kalamata olives, and an Italian dressing of sorts. While this version included feta, we omitted it to make it otherwise vegan. We also like that Panera Bread included a pepperoncini with the salad, along with a sprinkle of herbs.

We couldn't imagine making this salad a whole meal because of the lack of protein and fats — it can be a fresh addition to one of Panera Bread's flatbreads or soups. The flavor reminded us of your run-of-the-mill restaurant Greek salad, so we didn't have many complaints in that realm. The dressing tasted like it was straight out of a bottle. Overall, we weren't overwhelmed by the flavor or the freshness of this salad. It was lackluster and surely overpriced. One salad with a side was $7.49. You're better off preparing a Greek salad recipe at home.  

11. Baguette side

We have distinct memories of going to Panera Bread as a kid and getting "bread with a side of bread." The baguette is one of three "free" side options with salads, bowls, and soups at Panera Bread. And while this side of bread resembles the shape of a baguette, it doesn't have the same crunchiness that we tend to associate with the iconic French loaf.

The flavor of this bread was very mild and not salty whatsoever. There were a lot of bland undertones that don't make this chunk of bread anything to write home about. Moreover, the website boasts a "slightly blistered crust and wine-like aroma." This is, without a doubt, a stretch. The bread was elastic and damp so there was very little crunch when we tried to break it. There was also no aroma or smell that made us particularly excited to eat it. Is it better than the other two free side options of an apple or kettle chips? That's for you to decide.

10. Black pepper focaccia

At first glance, we didn't think this bread resembled focaccia at all. There was no characteristic dimpling, nor was there the signature layer of oil on top that separates focaccia from other types of bread. The bread just looked like a round, spongy loaf that you would find in the clearance section of your local grocery store bakery aisle. From a baker's standpoint, this loaf fails every test in the book.

Overall, the bread tastes distinctly like sourdough rather than focaccia. There is a salty undertone from what appears to be a salt brine on the exterior of this bread. Despite its name, black pepper barely registers on the palate. The best thing about the black pepper focaccia is the price; for five servings, the bread costs $4.89. We could imagine eating this loaf with salad or alongside bowls, but we don't think it deserves the title of "focaccia."

9. Fresh fruit cup

Panera Bread's fresh fruit cup is a small serving of cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple, and red grapes. At $3.99, you know the franchise is making a ton of money from selling these small servings of fruit alongside its soups and salads.

We wouldn't exactly call this a next-level fruit salad, and we don't give Panera Bread a lot of props for its creativity. We would have this side better if it had strawberries (or any other fruit to replace the boring honey and cantaloupe combo, for that matter) in it as well, but this would likely drive up the price of the fruit salad anyway. If there was more acid in this fruit salad, such as from a sprinkle of lemon juice, we would have been more impressed with the freshness of the dish. The fruit tasted a little old, but not so much as if the fruit juices had been sitting out for several days and the flavors of the honeydew and the cantaloupe were indistinguishable.

8. Blueberry bagel

The biggest complaint about the blueberry bagel was its presentation and staleness. The inside was firm to the touch, thus unlike a soft, plush blueberry bagel you're bound to find at a New York deli. The all-important blueberry distribution in the bagel was just average — certainly nothing to write home about.

Blueberry is the only sweet bagel at Panera Bread we sampled, and while the fruit flavor wasn't overwhelming, it was difficult to eat without any cream cheese or butter. Peanut butter was too far of a stretch and was not offered at our local Panera Bread location. The bagel was a bit more palatable after it had been toasted, but it was surely missing something — a schmear of vegan butter or plant-based cream cheese would have been welcomed. If there was a reason for Panera Bread to jump on the Violife train, the blueberry bagel is a good one.

7. Plain bagel

The Panera Bread plain bagel looks deceptively bland. But, this bagel's crunchy exterior and salty undertones make it an excellent breakfast choice. The chain notes that this bread is sweetened with a bit of brown sugar. Although we may not be able to taste that addition, we believe this bagel is one of Panera Bread's top contenders for its texture. It wasn't soft, squishy, or too firm — the texture was crispy and crunchy.

Since a plain bagel is a versatile accompaniment to a variety of toppings and spreads, we wish there were more vegan accompaniments available at Panera; the franchise could even offer peanut butter as a topping and it would have more vegans flocking to the restaurant. Without the option of vegan butter or vegan cream cheese, this bagel isn't much to write home about and certainly not worth the drive to your nearest Panera Bread. Time to get with the times, Panera Bread!

6. Baja bowl without feta and Greek yogurt

The Baja bowl is a vegetarian option on the Panera Bread menu. It is made with cilantro brown rice, quinoa, black bean and corn salsa, salsa verde, grape tomatoes, sliced avocado, feta, and Greek yogurt. This salad is filled with fibrous whole grains to keep you full — but does this vegan-ized bowl keep you satisfied?

The baja bowl without the feta and yogurt is just missing something — most likely that something being protein. We would have appreciated this bowl a lot more if there was grilled tofu, veggie sausage, or the option to add a meatless patty to pair with the black beans. Considering the price of the Baja bowl ($10.89), we would rather go to Chipotle and get a similar bowl with added sofritas for an extra protein kick. Oh, and the sour cherry on top? We accidentally bit into an avocado skin that got left on the avocado chunks.

5. Everything bagel

The everything bagel is a step above other chain bagels because it has a crunchy bottom with a soft crust. The topping of the bagel combines poppyseeds, sesame seeds, and decadent chunks of garlic. Overall, we were impressed with how flavorful the everything bagel is. The only spice that might make this bagel better would be more salt and possibly fennel seeds. 

The flavors of this bagel would pair well with an avocado spread, if Panera Bread were to offer it. The crunchiness of the bagel, paired with the toastiness of the sesame seeds, has the potential to make this a good swap for some of the other sandwich breads offered at Panera. Still, this didn't score higher on our rankings because in the end, the bagel is just a bagel — it's not a complete, satisfying meal. Add protein and fat and you would have a satisfying vegan meal option at Panera Bread. 

4. Sesame bagel

Overall, the sesame bagel was the best of the bagels we sampled at Panera Bread. There was a clear crispy exterior and soft, plush interior which is everything you can want in a bagel. There was a delicious, mild, nutty flavor to this bagel courtesy of the sesame seeds. This was best served toasted, which amplified the nuttiness thanks to the toasty and crunchy qualities of the bagel.

This would have scored higher on our list if there were vegan spreads to accompany the bagel. Since Panera Bread offers hummus on its Mediterranean bowl, we would recommend that the chain offer the spread as a breakfast option as well. The savory and garlicky taste of the hummus would provide a boost of protein and fats to this bagel, as well as a ton of delicious flavors. We would also like to see Panera Bread offer egg alternatives to make this bagel more of a whole meal rather than just a bakery item.

3. Fuji apple salad without chicken and Gorgonzola

The Fuji apple salad is filled with fall flavors like arugula, apple chips, sweetened pecans, kale, red-leaf lettuce, red onions, and grape tomatoes. You can make this option vegan by omitting the chicken and the Gorgonzola cheese. Though tasty, the Fuji apple salad falls short of fully satisfying. This would be best as a side salad rather than a whole meal — especially with the omission of protein. The vinaigrette dressing served with this salad is sickeningly sweet on its own, but perfect when mixed with the arugula and the kale. Our recommendation? Add the dressing in slowly and carefully to prevent saturating the salad. 

We especially appreciated the great textural blend this salad provided; you get the fattiness from the pecans in the same bite as the sharpness of the arugula. This would have certainly earned a higher spot on our rankings if it contained some sort of protein (like grilled tofu). 

2. Tomato basil cucumber side salad

This salad just scream summer flavors — and we absolutely love it. It was one of the only vegan options at Panera that we truly wanted to keep eating. This summer salad combines sliced cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and chopped basil which all tasted fresh. The only disappointment was the Italian dressing which, like the rest of the dressings we sampled, tasted like an average supermarket variety dressing. The basil chunks were well distributed in the salad, which received high marks from our team. 

The serving size was moderate, which is expected for a Panera Bread side. We just wish there was more of this salad in the container. While the salad delivered in the flavor department, it did not clinch the top spot because it didn't have any filling properties, namely protein. You can't make this salad a meal, but it would also be a fresh addition to one of Panera's pasta or soup options.

1. Mediterranean bowl without feta and Greek yogurt

The standard Mediterranean bowl ($10.89) is made with a base of cilantro rice topped with quinoa, arugula, grape tomatoes, Kalamata olives, cucumbers, hummus, lemon tahini dressing, feta, and Greek yogurt. Drop the Greek yogurt and the feta, and it's fully plant-based. We give this bowl props over the Mediterranean bowl because of the addition of hummus for fat and protein. The tahini dressing was also delicious –  though not too acidic, it added enough tang to the vegetables to provide some welcome brightness to the bowl. 

Not all of us are big fans of olives, so it was a little difficult to pick around the briny spheres in the salad. Other than that, we loved the flavor of the dressing mixed with the freshness of the cucumbers and the juiciness of cherry tomatoes. We also appreciated the base of the quinoa and the rice, the freshness of the vegetables, and the garlicky flavor of the hummus. This is the only main vegan entrée we sampled from Panera Bread that checked off both the filling and flavorful boxes.