Panera Bread’s menu seems to oscillate between two extremes: dainty, lighter options, and food that will melt your insides. There’s the “You Pick Two,” a sensible classic half-sandwich, half-salad combo … or a blob of broccoli cheddar soup stuffed in a bread bowl and served with a side of French baguette. This dichotomy also applies to their beverage menu, where you can choose between refreshing low- and no-caffeine selections like unsweetened iced tea and ginger ale—or, if you’re feeling sluggish, you can send your body into orbit with a Charged Lemonade, an equally feared and loved beverage that contains no fewer than 260 milligrams of caffeine and 82 grams of sugar.
Charged Lemonades once again went viral this week when @SarahEBaus, a creator in Charleston, South Carolina, frantically shared her experience with them on TikTok. In the video, she explains that she’d been using Panera as a remote workspace and had been drinking several of their Mango Yuzu Citrus Charged Lemonades a day. She’d been wondering why she’d felt so good and perky while working there, until she realized exactly how much sugar and caffeine each of the 20-ounce servings contained. “[This should] 100 percent be illegal,” she says in the video, so hyped up on Charged Lemonade that she can barely talk.
Baus’ video first blew up on TikTok last week, where it received 650,000 views before it was reposted on Twitter on Wednesday with the caption “somebody at Panera gon end up getting sued.”
“She’s not lying,” one person replied. “I had a large Strawberry Charged Lemonade. I was awake for a full 24 hrs. I got so much stuff done.” Scores of people backed this up with their own demented Panera memories.
So far, it doesn’t appear as if anyone has taken legal action against Panera, but some people have claimed their party-pooping stores have removed the Mango Yuzu Citrus flavor because of the controversy. (Or maybe they’ve just … run out.) Others have called for all three Charged Lemonades to be banned since some people find them “clinically addictive” and lose entire days of sleep after drinking them. Even so, the contentious beverage appears to have developed a cultlike following in the past several days, garnering tons of tweets from people who are dying—hopefully not literally—to try them.
I have some questions. For one, why does a lemonade need to contain the caffeine equivalent of four and a half shots of espresso, two and a half Red Bulls, or a 24-ounce cup of dark roast coffee? Well, why does a meal of cheese and pasta need to be housed in its own vessel of bread? Because this is a Panera, I guess. You come for the goblin-level mac and cheese, you sit down and eat your 1,150 calories, and you don’t ask questions.
To be fair, the chain, which declined to speak to me for this story and explain whether it intends to kill people, doesn’t exactly keep its menu components secret. Both the calories and caffeine level are listed in-store on the drink dispensers and on promotional displays for all to see. For her part, Baus was well aware of the labeling, but she’d never looked too closely at it. As she explained to me, it wasn’t until her husband, who’s Type 1 diabetic, looked up the carb content when considering it for himself that she had this realization.
To really understand the context, you should know about another iconic Panera offering: free refills. In most cases, the highly caffeinated beverage you’re consuming doesn’t come with free refills. Whether you’re buying a canned energy drink at a grocery store or getting a quad latte from your local shop, it’s typically a one-and-done situation. But at Panera, they’ve got this liquid speed on tap. Panera even has an Unlimited Sip program in which, for $12, you can have as many beverages in its restaurants as you’d like over the course of a month. They’re basically encouraging customers to come in and drink as much as possible.
Technically, one could do the same thing at a McDonald’s or another more casual fast food spot. But given that McDonald’s isn’t exactly relaxing, it may not be people’s first choice for a leisurely afternoon hang. Panera, on the other hand, is what’s known as a “third place,” a special type of social environment that blurs the lines of work and home.
This concept originates from sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s 1989 book The Great Good Place, wherein he separates daily life into three distinct spaces. The first is the home, the second is the workplace, and the third is any other environment where people can freely gather and exist in public without obligation. Starbucks, notably, is explicitly designed with the third place in mind. As Forbes first wrote in 2015, Panera has increasingly been chasing this idea as well, arranging their stores more like living room spaces and encouraging customers to stick around by offering free Wi-Fi. Particularly with its Unlimited Sips program, Panera has shaped itself to be a third place where people can hang around with a low barrier to entry—even more so than Starbucks, where two drinks would cost as much as a month’s worth at Panera, and there aren’t even free refills.
All of this helps explain what makes this Panera lemonade situation so compelling. If it were a 7-Eleven selling chaos in a cup, nobody would think twice. Instead, it’s this suburban-feeling sandwich retailer that has shaped itself as a simulacrum of the neighborhood cafe. And that’s weird—a Charged Lemonade would be a better fit for the X Games vibe of Taco Bell, a chain that already flavors everything with Mountain Dew and Doritos dust. Panera seems so innocent—until you remember that they’re essentially feeding you a loaf of sourdough with every meal. At Panera, the mayhem is merely disguised by the presence of words like Napa and brioche, and the dissonance of it all abounds.
Nevertheless, for Baus, who says in the video that she hates working from her home, Panera is the perfect environment for both work and leisure. “It’s close to my house and it’s actually quiet,” she said. “I kept going to coffee shops that had loud music and very limited seating. Plus, Panera has the Unlimited Sip Club, which is much cheaper than paying for a coworking space.” For all these reasons, she says, she’ll continue to work from Panera—and yes, continue to glug the lemonade. “I have started watering it down about 70/30, though, because I don’t need that much sugar or that much caffeine,” she said.
That it’s even an option to sit down, open up your computer, and drink cup after cup of extreme sugar-lemon water for 40 cents a day is uniquely Panera. And what else would you expect? Panera, which has been strategically arranged to make you feel a vague sense of familiarity, is a monument to quiet American hedonism. It beckons you in with its informal comforts and asks you to sit back on one of its many lightly cushioned, vinyl-coated sofas. Maybe you’ll enjoy a quick cup of homestyle chicken noodle soup and a half-size Fuji apple salad with chicken, and then be on your way. Or, before you know it, you’ve taken advantage of those free lemonade refills a few times too many, and oops—you’re 1,000 milligrams of caffeine in the hole and have spent the past four hours inside Panera reading the Wikipedia pages of each of the 10 largest airports in the world. The point is, it doesn’t matter what type of day you’re looking to have—Panera will be there, hulk-juice and all.