How does Panera really make its beloved mac and cheese? Viral video might have the answer

"That’s how almost all chain restaurants cook and serve their food. It’s called efficiency."
The frozen macaroni and cheese at Panera is a great example of a simply prepared food, frozen to maintain the integrity of the freshest product.
The frozen macaroni and cheese at Panera is a great example of a simply prepared food, frozen to maintain the integrity of the freshest product.Getty Images, Panera Bread

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/ Source: TODAY
By Erica Chayes Wida

How does Panera really make its signature Mac & Cheese so totally creamy every time?

A video recently posted to TikTok by someone who claims to be employed by the fast-casual chain is leaving an unsavory taste in some food fans' mouths.

In the clip, a person picks up a sealed plastic bag that appears to be filled with an individual serving of creamy pasta, then places it into a commercial boiler (a common tool found in professional kitchens used to heat multiple items in boiling water), removes the bag, slices it open with scissors, pours the mac into a bowl and, presumably, serves it up.

The caption of the video reads, "exposing panera."

The video has received over 300,000 likes and nearly 3,000 comments — many of which express utter disbelief about the process.

"And that’s the last time i [sic] order Mac and cheese from Panera," one person wrote.

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Another said they would prefer to eat elsewhere and commented, "This is why i have never been there. I don’t want glorified hospital food for $$$."

Some folks appear to be just fine with frozen food if it only costs a few bucks, but would certainly prefer to get their money's worth.

"It wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t so expensive ya know," someone said.

Many individuals, however, weren't phased by the alleged employee's exposé at all.

"That’s how almost all chain restaurants cook and serve their food. It’s called efficiency," one spectator wrote.

"That's a better way of cooking it honestly the [sic] water creates a better distribution of heat. 😊😊" another added.

So is this heat-and-eat process really that unusual?

It's apparently shocking to some consumers that workers at individual Paneras aren't cooking up hundreds of made-from-scratch batches of macaroni and cheese every day. But for such a large chain, it's definitely not weird.

According to a Panera manager from New Jersey, the chain's macaroni and cheese does come frozen when it arrives at store locations. Each day, the staff "re-thermalizes" bags when a serving is ordered. The process of re-thermalizing, or reheating, takes place in a device like the one shown in the viral video. The manager compared the machine to a large sous vide cooker that can hold vacuum-sealed bags in different racks. Each bag of mac and cheese has to be re-thermalized for a minimum of 20 minutes.

"We sell a lot of mac and cheese, so we go through it pretty quickly," the manager told TODAY Food. Anything that isn't sold gets thrown out at the end of the day, he added.

A Panera spokesperson (who was unable to confirm the authenticity of the video) also verified this reheating process, sending the following statement to TODAY, "Mac and cheese is made offsite with our proprietary recipe developed by our chefs and using our sourced ingredients that meet our standards for our clean menu offerings. It is shipped frozen to our bakery cafes – this allows us to avoid using preservatives which do not meet our clean standards."

Creating larger quantities of the mac and cheese offsite not only makes it easier for the chain's locations to serve it quickly, but it also ensures that any given serving of the pasta at a location in New Jersey will taste exactly the same as one made at a Panera in Wisconsin.

A representative for the chain said Panera serves over 3 million servings of its Mac & Cheese every month (that's a lot of macaroni!), and the dish adheres to its commitment of using fewer additives since it contains no artificial preservatives, flavors or coloring agents from synthetic sources.

For folks who are still worried about their fast-causal fare being frozen (hey, it's called "fast" for a reason), there are plenty of never-frozen salad options to enjoy at the soup-and-sandwich eatery.

But really, who wants a salad when you can enjoy a double-bread bowl filled with mac and cheese instead?