Often when big business moves into small business territory there’s apprehension.
Will big business take over the local market with their flashy promotions and competitive prices? Will longtime patrons of small business stay or be tempted to stray?
As a cupcake connoisseur, I asked myself some of these questions when Panera Bread entered the cupcake industry in September.
Recently chosen as the Best Chain Sandwich Shop in America by readers of The Daily Meal, obviously Panera Bread knows a thing or two about making customers happy.
I was eager to see how well this translated to cupcakes.
Of Panera Bread’s three debut flavors – Chocolate, Vanilla and Red Velvet, I purchased two. Each cupcake was priced at $2.79, which seemed reasonable for its size.
I started with the Vanilla Cupcake. Their description is a light and fluffy vanilla cake filled with pastry cream, then topped with vanilla bean icing and finished with a seasonal sugar leaf.
From the first bite, it was apparent there was nothing light or fluffy about the cake. Instead, I found it dense and dry – disappointing indeed.
The vanilla bean frosting was okay. I liked its initial vanilla taste, but not the sugary trace afterwards. As for the cream filling, I didn’t care for its flavor. Overall, the cupcake wasn’t any better than one from the bakery section at a grocery store.
After I finished the Vanilla, I wasn’t feeling optimistic about the Red Velvet.
For those who have followed my blog from the beginning, you know how incredibly persnickety I am about Red Velvet. So much so, I rarely rate a bakery with this flavor… I’ve had countless letdowns and only trust certain cupcake shops.
For Panera Bread, I made an exception and mentally lowered the bar.
Their Red Velvet Cupcake is a chocolate brownie base layered with red velvet cake and topped with cream cheese vanilla bean icing.
Let me say that brownie base made all the difference! I enjoyed this cupcake.
The brownie had the right amount of cocoa to complement the red velvet and its texture was similar to cake. I’ve had richer cream cheese frosting and it had a slight aftertaste. Nonetheless, I was satisfied.
I give Panera Bread’s cupcakes 3 out of 5 stars. Per their description, the Chocolate Cupcake also has a brownie base. Although I didn’t sample this flavor, Chocolate should be one of their better cupcakes as well.
Even so, I don’t believe the small bakeshops have much to fear from Panera Bread. In their pursuit to grab a piece of the multimillion-dollar industry (see infographic), they’ve left something out of their recipes.
I didn’t taste the creativity, the handmade quality, or love I find in local cupcake shops. Thus, there’s no doubt this Frosting Fanatic will remain loyal to small business.
UPDATE: On June 3, 2014, Panera Bread announced a change in their food policy. Though it centered around three commitments, only one garnered media buzz – cleaner ingredients. It meant no artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives in any their food items. The planned completion date is the end of 2016.
A chat with Panera Support revealed no answers about if or when cupcakes will return. Hence, if you’re a fan struggling with the loss, you might want to try the cupcake recipes on their website.
- Panera to give all food additives the heave-ho (usatoday.com)
- Panera lists ‘unacceptable’ ingredients in its foods (usatoday.com)
- Panera Bread No No List (panerabread.com)
- Panera Bread Chocolate Pumpkin Cupcakes (panerabread.com)
- Panera Bread Vegan Chocolate Valentines Cupcakes (panerabread.com)