For anyone who works remotely, travels often, or requires continual access to caffeinated beverages in order to survive the workday, the cozy, corner coffee shop with its free Wi-Fi, constantly percolating coffee pots, and easy listening music is as warm and welcoming a spot as one’s own kitchen table. For me, when it comes to chain restaurants, nothing beats Panera for a consistently high quality offering of food, beverage, and atmosphere. I am not alone in my allegiance. I know I am one of millions who choose Panera’s warm bread smell over Starbucks’ acrid coffee aroma and wonky emo music. I should also clarify that I simply refuse to even put Dunkin’ Donuts in the same category. Any self-proclaimed coffee shop that doesn’t let you add your own cream and sugar accoutrements to your coffee is peddling a product that is only a half a step above airplane and hospital waiting room coffee.
As someone who has spent a significant amount of time pilfering Panera’s free Wi-Fi in locations across the nation while working and traveling, I have regularly observed five common types of Panera frequenters. While we are all seeking the same fundamental goal of good coffee, delightful baked goods, and free Wi-Fi, each of these typical customers is just slightly unique in how Panera meets their daily needs.
The Remote Employee
Sure, you can lump me into this category. I’ve held group meetings at Panera, spent lunch breaks getting caught-up on emails, and even met my accountant at Panera. The real rock star in this category however, is the guy I routinely see at the Starbucks nearest my home who arrives early in the morning wearing a full suit, flanked by a laptop and leather portfolio. He routinely meets with other business professionals from the semi-privacy of a back booth. He seems to listen initially early in the meeting, and then spends much of the rest of the hour-long meeting doing most of the talking.
Sometimes I wonder if he’s a life coach. Other times I wonder if he is a remote sales employee meeting with prospective customers, or sale trainees. At worst I wonder if he is trying to recruit acquaintances to join his pyramid scheme. I suppose I’ll never know, but one thing is for sure, he lacks a designated office and takes his coffee black to match his three-piece black suit and his black leather portfolio case.
The Large, Loud Family
Every week when I make my routine sojourn to Panera for my early morning pre-workday coffee and soufflé, I encounter a large boisterous international family. Comprised of grandparents, teens, and even toddlers, they appear to come to Panera, at least weekly, to spend quality, early morning time together. They speak their native language, take up the largest booth in the room, drink a lot of tea, and always have a really difficult time deciding what they are going to order, considering how frequently they attend the restaurant.
They are also really loud. It isn’t until I’ve been properly caffeinated that I am able to put their disorganized ordering procedures and loud, pervasive conversations aside and appreciate how nice it is that they all make time for one another every week. I still make an effort to sit on the other side of the room from them though, because I like my coffee shop background noise to be at a dull roar before 8:30 a.m.
The Disenfranchised Board Member
Yes, I’m on a board of directors, and yes, I’ve held meetings at Panera. The board members that I’m talking about, however, use the café and bakeshop as a location to air all of their grievances to a select group of pitiful colleagues. It is never my intention to eavesdrop, and honestly I’m never interested in anyone else’s drama, because aren’t all of our lives filled with enough drama already? Who needs anymore? Still, there have been at least a half dozen times when I couldn’t help but have my eardrums assailed by the beleaguered, public complaints of disgruntled board members.
I have heard volatile members attempt to defend their pitiful attitudes when questioned by colleagues. I have heard others complain about all that is wrong with the system, without offering one suggestion to improve their perceived institutionalized flaws. I have also heard groups of board members (mostly women – sorry but true) complaining, and complaining, with no particular purpose other than to drown their frustrations in cinnamon raisin bagels and cheese Danish. Quite honestly, this group is emotionally exhausting.
The job interviewee
Likes so many others that we have discussed, these individuals come in a variety of sub-categories:
1. The young, pretty babysitter being interviewed by a shrewd-eyed wife and her smiling, excited husband.
2. The non-profit board member applicant. We can expect to see this individual riding the aforementioned pity train within a year if they get the job, but in this initial moment of enthusiasm, they are typically all smiles and positivity. It’s like seeing an oncoming car wreck that the driver is unable to see coming.
3. The student grant applicant. This interviewee is likely pitching a snooty University professor hardcore about their goal to bring music therapy to pigeons, revolutionize the ecological management of field grass, or study the effects of caffeine on mobile app developers.
In all cases, I’m not entirely sure if a coffee shop is the best environment for such a personal, important discussion. Then again, a chocolate pastry and warm coffee can really take the edge off of a bad day if the interviewee tanks.
This one, for me, is a sadness. Almost every morning when I go to Panera, I see the same old man walk into the store, I have watched him come from a distance and believe he must walk at least a mile from a nearby apartment complex or bus stop. He comes in the rain, the heat, and the snow, almost always wearing the same battered rain coat, bucket hat, frayed pants, and woolly socks tucked in to worn boots.
He is old and frazzled, with deep crevices lining his cheeks. He walks hunched forward and shuffles his feet. He sits in the same window seat where he takes a large black coffee and slowly, and meticulously pours eleven sugar packets into the dark black liquid. He sips his coffee, stairs out the window and talks to himself. Sometimes he hums, sometimes he looks as if he is working through guitar chords with his bony fingers dotted by swollen knuckles. I imagine that in his head he hears a beautiful string guitar melody that takes him back to a place he still longs to be, the saccharine taste of his coffee a reminder of warm, sweet, happy memories.
I worry about this man. I worry that for everything the coffee shop is to all of us: a mobile office, a family gathering spot, a place to vent, or a place to give a dream a shot, that for him it is something much more important. Perhaps it is the only place he travels to most days. Perhaps he spends the rest of his time by himself in a lonely apartment, listening to a solo guitar that no one else can hear. I wonder if it is the highlight of his day – a routine he will not break because it provides for him something that he cannot get anywhere else, but what could that be? A warm coffee? A cheerful atmosphere? Or the satisfaction of being surrounded by others?
For a communal location such as a coffee shop, for those of us who weave it into the tapestry of our daily lives, we all hope to gain something personal, and unique, but have you ever stopped to wonder what everyone else is seeking? As you fight over the last bit of half-and half or jockey for position by the fountain beverage machine, perhaps we should all take a moment to remember to smile at one another. By now we are certainly acquaintances after months of morning encounters, aren’t we? So we should smile, and remind ourselves, that no matter how difficult our lives seem on any given day, perhaps those around us are fighting a harder battle.