A man laughs hysterically in the short video that's racked up nearly 1 million likes, as the plastic packet of frozen macaroni and cheese is dropped into a boiler, cut open and then poured into a bowl ready to serve. The woman who posted the clip gives a thumbs-up in the hat that marks her as an employee of Panera Bread.
The caption on video-sharing app TikTok: "exposing panera."
The clip brought a wave of gripes last week from disillusioned customers of a chain known for "fast casual" dining typically perceived as a step above fast food in quality. Commenters said they expected more than warmed-from-frozen dishes, or — as one critic put it — "glorified hospital food."
But the fallout went both ways, the woman behind the video said, announcing Friday via her newly famous Twitter account: "lol i lost my job for this."
Panera Bread spokeswoman Jessica Hesselschwerdt declined to discuss personnel matters but told The Washington Post that the company has confirmed the TikTok video's authenticity. In a statement, the company defended its preparation methods, explaining that its mac and cheese is still a patently Panera product "made offsite with our proprietary recipe developed by our chefs."
"It is shipped frozen to our bakery cafes — this allows us to avoid using preservatives which do not meet our clean standards," the company said.
Many restaurants are reluctant to admit to heating up frozen food. After a survey of French restaurants found one-third acknowledged serving frozen items, some in the industry said the true number was probably higher because "chefs were embarrassed to admit the short cuts that, in effect, hoodwink their customers."
For some critics, the TikTok video's depiction of mac-and-cheese preparation was at odds with Panera's image. Others were less surprised, chiming in with their stories of food prep from other chains. And some felt vindicated.
"I've said before that Panera bread Mac and cheese is garbage, and here is the proof," a Twitter user posted.
Then there were the people who declared they love Panera mac and cheese anyway — and wondered what all the fuss was about.
"That's how almost all chain restaurants cook and serve their food," one person commented. "It's called efficiency."
The item may be frozen, but it's also popular. Panera serves more than 3 million mac-and-cheese servings each month, according to the company.