How often do you think about…Panera Bread? The fast food restaurant chain wants you to think about its staple menu items as much as men apparently think about the Roman Empire.
Panera created a menu on Tuesday inspired by a viral TikTok trend in which women ask men how often they think about the Roman Empire. (The answer is a lot, apparently.) This is just the latest example of a brand jumping on a social media trend in hopes of boosting its sales and publicity.
Perhaps the only item on Panera’s Roman Empire menu that even remotely hearkens back to the Pax Romana is, of course, the Caesar salad (which was supposedly created in 1924 by an Italian immigrant who launched a restaurant in Tijuana in order to escape American Prohibition and has no connection to Julius Caesar or Caesar Augustus). The rest of the menu highlights some of Panera’s most iconic items—like the broccoli cheddar soup, macaroni and cheese, and toasted Frontega chicken panini—with the tagline, “Here is a selection of products you just can’t stop thinking about!”
Panera’s new menu is a far cry from what the Romans really ate. A Roman-inspired menu might include a fermented fish sauce called “garum” and dormouse—a gutted mouse stuffed with pork mince and baked. Dormouse is still served in Croatia and Slovenia. The preserved ruins of Pompeii serve as a window into the gastronomic delights of the Roman Empire. In 2019, an ancient fast-food stall, also known as a thermopolium, was discovered there. City locals would have bought hot food and drinks from the counter.
The tag #RomanEmpireTrend has amassed over 51 million views on TikTok. The trend was started on Aug. 19 by Artur Hulu, a 33-year-old Roman reenactor and history influencer known as “Gaius Flavius” on social media, according to The Washington Post.
“Ladies, many of you do not realize how often men think about the Roman Empire,” Hulu wrote in an Instagram post. “Ask your husband/boyfriend/father/brother—you will be surprised by their answers!”
The result was a legion of women who were left baffled as they learned that many men think of the Roman Empire weekly—sometimes even daily. Discussions have emerged online and in the media as to why men think about it so often.
Simultaneously, people wonder what the female equivalent of this trend is. Some on social media name historical events like the Salem witch trials and the Titanic, while others point to pop culture moments like Tom Holland dancing to Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” In a darker vein, some say that murder is the woman’s Roman Empire—whether it be an obsession with true-crime stories or the fear of being murdered themselves.
Et tu, Brute?
Panera isn’t alone in its bid to latch onto the zeitgeist.
In July, McDonald’s saw its second-quarter sales rise over 11% with the help of the Grimace Shake trend. In horror movie fashion, TikTokers would wish Grimace (a formerly retired McDonald’s mascot) a happy birthday and take a sip of the berry-flavored milkshake before pretending to writhe in agony in purple puddles and suffer gruesome fake deaths.
However, the dark trend wasn’t planted by McDonald’s. The company’s social media director said as much in a LinkedIn post, crediting the success to the “brilliant creativity, unfiltered fun, peak absurdist Gen Z humor” and “the way a new generation of creators and consumers play with brands.”
Around the same time, Popeye’s hopped onto the “girl dinner” trend by selling a combo meal that consists only of sides, like mashed potatoes, Cajun fries, and coleslaw. "Girl dinner" is the TikTok term for the snack plate of miscellaneous foods that constitute a meal.
One brand even used its publicity from a TikTok trend to land a retail partnership with Whole Foods. Scout, a canned fish company, rose from obscurity after the “tin fish date night” trend went viral late last year, in which couples include canned seafood on their charcuterie boards. The tag #TinFishDateNight has over 45 million views on the app.
Panera advertised its new menu in a TikTok video on Wednesday, one day after its launch. But little else has been done to promote the initiative, perhaps indicative of the rush to jump at the opportunity. (Of course, none of the menu items are new and therefore require no introduction.) Nonetheless, what these examples show are brands increasingly adapting their marketing strategies to appeal to sometimes bizarre and unusual trends in order to ride the wave of social-media-driven spending.