There's a good old-fashioned bagel/cafe war shaping up on South Beach these days. In this corner of Alton Road (the one on 15th Street): Einstein Bros Bagels, serving locals at this locale since the 20th Century. And in the opposite corner (the one on 14th Street) is Panera Bread, with its first South Beach store.
Is there room for both to succeed? Time will tell. But in the meanwhile, we'll conduct sort of a pre-bout weigh-in on the pros and cons of each place.
Panera is much larger in size, has a pretty little outdoor section to sit in, and is, of course, newer and therefore fresher looking. It's got more foods and breads around too, which enhances the feeling of being in an actual bakery. It's a lot prettier than Einstein, and the booths are more comfortable to sit in as well.
Einstein is like an old shoe -- it fits well into the hood and it's comfortable.
Diversity of product:
Einstein: Bagels, bagel-poppers, some cookies, muffins, and a few baked goods are pretty much all the prepared food that's sold here -- plus sandwiches, coffee and beverages.
Panera: All manner of baked goods are produced here, including cakes, pastries, and a wide variety of breads -- a lot more items than at Einstein. Wider sandwich selection, too.
Panera: Offers egg sandwiches on bagels or on other breads, such as ciabatta. Eggs are cooked in an individual-serving steamer.
Einstein: Eggs come on bagels only and are microwaved. Ugh.
Einstein: Soft, fresh, and chewy are the main characteristics. Unlike at traditional bagelries, the bagels here as well as at Panera are not boiled before baking; that's why the crust is never crusty (the bagels instead get steamed while in the oven).
Panera: It's a pretty similar bagel as at Einstein. I thought the Panera bagel had a bit more of a malty flavor, and were a little less soft.
Edge: A slight one to Panera.
Panera: Coffee comes in two styles: Dark roast and light roast. I tried the former and it was a strong, solid cup of joe. There were timers on each brewer so diners can know how fresh the coffee is.
Einstein: More choices of coffee (Melvin's brand), and equally good as Panera. Except the timers were not on the coffee machines, so one couldn't tell how long ago each one was brewed.
Edge: A draw.
Einstein: The staff here has turned over year after year, and yet, almost miraculously, the incompetency has remained absolutely consistent. If you go in and order a bagel to go, unsliced and untoasted, there is at least a 60 percent chance your bagel will be either toasted or sliced; this has been true since day one.
Panera: Too soon to tell, but they got my order right the first time, which is something, as stated, rarely achieved at Einstein.
Edge: Panera. Because the workers there can't possibly be worse.
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Panera seems pretty impressive at this point -- it really offers a lot more than Einstein, and the quality appears to be better. Granted, Panera is not a cozy, privately-owned little bakery/coffee shop, but in the context of corporate chains, it seems to be doing well.
Only real edge that Einstein has at this point is that people tend to leave their newspapers laying around, so there's generally something to read when you go there.