A former employee shares the menu swaps and tricks you really have to try.
Panera Bread
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We thought we hit our crazy Panera Bread menu items quota when the double bread bowl released this summer, but your favorite cafe just released a new dish that may be even crazier. Diners can now choose from three topped mac and cheese options from bacon mac and cheese, Baja mac and cheese (topped with pico de gallo, cilantro, and avocado), or BBQ chicken mac and cheese (piled high with chicken, barbecue sauce, cilantro, and frizzled onions). But it doesn’t stop there. If those options don’t make your mouth water, you can build your own mac and cheese using any of the available ingredients (you can also stay home, try our copycat Panera mac and cheese, and top it with whatever you dang well please).

Sounds like a dream, right? Well... maybe not so much. See, in my high school days I worked at my local Panera Bread. For employees that dined on Panera’s menu multiple times a week, we had to get a little bit creative with our off-menu additions to avoid Panera fatigue. One of my coworkers regularly ordered a bread bowl with mac and cheese, topped with bacon (sound familiar?). I just wish people would have known… the dishes customers are going nuts for, they could have started ordering a long time ago.

So, don’t wait for the chain to release their newest combination. Be ahead of the curve. I can say with confidence, the following orders have been made before, and you can make them again. Here are the top 7 menu hacks I learned during my time as a Panera employee.

Make your sandwich melty

My all time favorite Panera bread sandwich is the Mediterranean Veggie, but eating that every day became very boring, very quickly. Until the day I realized that you can request any sandwich to be warmed on the panini press, creating a new, hot and toasty lunch option. And if you’re not into warm produce ingredients, you can always request toasted bread instead, or ask for items (like lettuce) to be served on the side. When ordering online, note warm on panini press in the special instructions options.

And add avocado to everything

For just $1 you can add creamy, dreamy avocado to any Panera dish. Want some avo added to your Caesar salad? Done. How about a few slices over an order of gooey mac and cheese? You got it. Or maybe a steamy bowl of chili topped with creamy avocado? Count me in.

Treat the Classic Salad as a build your own adventure

The classic salad is your go-to for a create-your-own salad experience. You’ll get tomatoes, onion, cucumber, and a lettuce blend as your base. Then, swap out the dressing for any other available and add any ingredients featured in other salads—even a scoop of chicken salad or chopped bacon. I always go for a few slices of fresh mozzarella or a hard boiled egg for protein. Just keep in mind, there can be a significant upcharge for some ingredients.

Mix and match beverages

When you order a drink, you’ll get a plastic cup and total freedom at the beverage station. I still to this day mix half unsweetened iced tea with half lemonade for a DIY Arnold Palmer, but if you’re into something super sweet the lemonade with iced green tea is a sure winner.

Ask for extra sauce

Any sauce or spread on the menu can be ordered on the side for no extra charge. I’ll sometimes ask for a side of the cilantro-Jalapeno hummus or garlic and herb cheese spread to upgrade my baguette, but the chipotle mayonnaise, mustard garlic aioli, or basil pesto make great additions to any sandwich you may order.

Don’t be afraid to build your dream sandwich

Start with the turkey sandwich as a base (or some cafes offer an off-menu chicken sandwich). This comes with the standard whole grain bread with turkey, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, and mustard. From there, you can build your dream sandwich by adding any toppings, meats, cheese, or sauces and swapping out the bread to have your perfect lunch created for you. (Because everyone knows, a sandwich tastes so much better when somebody else makes it.)

Swap out the protein

There may be a small upcharge, but you can swap out the main protein, like chicken, for any other meat in a sandwich or salad—like smoked chicken, roasted turkey, or bacon. Plus, for salads, you can swap out meat for avocado totally free of charge, making meatless Monday easier than ever.