As you might guess from the title, this post in some ways concerns the sandwich shop chain that serves as the poor-man’s coffee shop in the desolate parking lot deserts of suburban America. Given that I’m frequently traveling to these centers of wanton consumerism – increasingly empty, what with the retail god Amazon taking hold of our wallets – Paneras form a strange bastion of familiarity, mediocre food, and at least some guarantee of internet and solitude.
I’ve posted a few times here on how having a setting that isn’t a feasting monster of terrible design helps keep the mind-cogs greased. Panera is not, say, the Sistine Chapel. It will not cause a swell in your heart and a flush in your face as you realize you are witnessing a miracle of expression. Instead, you’ll be greeted by beige tabletops and a flurry of signs haranguing you to order online, presumably in a quest to cut down on the number of human employees charged with interpreting your word vomit into an actual menu item.
After that, you’ll be handed a buzzer which, you will be assured, will let your server find you no matter which table you scurry to. For me, that’s usually a corner somewhere with an outlet. Electricity is like the gold of coffee shop country. Then comes the routine surveying of the surroundings before a brief departure of your laptop to fill a cup of coffee, water, or tea depending on the hour and sense of desperation to get things done.
Eventually, the salad, soup, or sandwich will arrive and will, inevitably, disappoint to some degree. This is not because Panera’s food is bad, per se, but rather that it faces the impossible task of living up to the listed ingredients. We’re talking fruit, veggies, sauces and bacon all frothed together in various arrangements. The hungry mind is going to build up a mighty construct from those beginnings, and so the flat, blah salad makes its appearance, there’s a momentary downshift in expectations that must occur before engorging yourself on the food.
The pastries, should you choose to detonate one of those calorie bombs in your stomach, are like sweet succulents, but trend towards a size larger than, you know, strictly necessary. This is a personal opinion, but the instant diabetes acquired from the carrot cake muffins takes some daring to brave. Still, these are generally the highlight of my Panera visits.
The most important part of any Panera visit, though, is post-food. When the calming chatter washes over you and there’s little in the way of irritation. Coffee is bottomless, the bathrooms aren’t cloistered away behind some odd fixture or, generally, sealed behind lock and key. Internet, should you need it, is there but is of a quality that removes the temptation for too much video streaming.
In short, in a boring, step-above-fast-food joint, creativity has a home. Please, Panera, don’t go away. If I have to resort to writing in a Texas Roadhouse, I’m gonna lose it.