Revisited: Hanging out at Panera

I was originally going to write this morning about the phenomenon of cafes, bakeries and coffee shops being transformed into mobile offices for today’s laptop-toting entrepreneurs. While doing some second-shift training last week, I was one of these latter-day squatters as I killed time between shifts at the Panera around the corner from my office. Clustered around the nearest electrical outlet like our ancestors in the cold prehistoric night hugged the nearest campfire, we sit tap-tap-tapping, oblivious to the genuine customers who give us the occasional nasty look as we nurse a single coffee with our paperwork spread over at least six table spaces.

I usually prefer to be the one giving the resentful glances rather than the one receiving. I was especially perturbed several months back when some sort of real-estate sales force regularly took over the whole back half of this particular cafe. Unlike those who work alone on their databases and spreadsheets, disturbing their neighbors only occasionally with forced-cheery cell calls to would-be clients, this group held actual full-blown meetings, complete with flip charts and loud announcements. At one point, the guy in charge of the group noted that sales were declining with quarterly targets right around the corner, and you can tell some of this group isn’t working their hardest, as I can tell by you, Bill, not wearing your tie, and if it’s in your car why don’t we all wait while you just go get it?

Talk about a big smear of humiliation with your cinnamon crunch bagel.

As I said at the beginning, I was originally going to write about this caffeine-addled new-economy workforce by visiting a similar Panera nearer my suburban home. I was going to walk around the room, looking over the shoulder of each of these workers, trying to get a sense of their place in the business world so I could make fun of them. But there’s just not as much to choose from in the suburbs as there is in the city.

When I first arrived about a half-hour ago, the only business types were a guy backed into a corner so no one could see what he was working on (porn or, equally embarrassing, talking points for an upcoming sales call) and another guy talking on his cell. Everybody else in the restaurant – probably 20 people or so – were obvious retirees who had turned this location into their senior center. They are literally gathered around the fire(place) in the center of the room, most clutching sweaters to their chests and complaining to management, “What is this, a meat packinghouse? It’s so cold in here.”

Finally a few other laptop slaves trickle in, nervously glancing about for those precious seating locations near the electrical outlets. At the in-town location I visited last week, great tangles of wiring were spread about the floor as people tried the ol’ electronic reach-around to tap into the precious and not-coincidentally free power. The etiquette of this social group apparently requires a polite request if you want to share the plug-in with a stranger — as if it were some potentially grievous breach of sexual space — but it’s also OK if you can slip your prongs in without having to ask. And God forbid if you should accidentally unplug your neighbor’s cord when you intended to disconnect your own. This premature withdrawal is NOT the kind that is appreciated.

Now a guy has sit down next to me, just beyond a low wall that separates my table from his. I can tell he’s eyeing my power source, and before I know it he’s hooked in without even the slightest attempt to get to know me. The cad! I guess he thinks the wall represents some kind of bathroom stall separator which makes an anonymous encounter possible. Before I know it he’s tapping away and munching on his artichoke-and-cheese quiche and sucking down both orange juice and coffee. So, he’s not only a bounder, but he’s also setting a bad example for the rest of us cheapskates by actually purchasing something with a profit margin. After a few more minutes, I hear a commotion behind the wall and see him rise and walk over to one of the bakery workers. Seems he’s spilled his quiche onto the floor and wants some help cleaning it up. Sorry, Panera, there goes your margin.

If I haven’t mentioned it already, I was originally going to write about… oh, sorry; seems like my initial intentions have panned out after all. The seniors have gathered up their caps and gloves to head out into the elements – it’s still pushing 85 here in the South despite the fact it’s mid-September, and they do have to get to their cars without freezing – and what looks like the mid-morning brunch crowd is starting to trickle in. One lady has just come to pick up a large tray of sandwiches for the luncheon meeting at her office – there are companies that still have the budget for that kind of thing? We once got a box of donuts for working Easter Sunday.

Well, I guess I’ve occupied valuable retail space long enough without making a significant contribution to this establishment’s bottom line. Let me grab a few free samples of the cherry vanilla scone, pick up a discarded USA Today from the rack on the side of the trash can, and check the stock market (or what’s left of it) on the free wi-fi . Yikes, the Lehman meltdown has pushed the Dow down over 300 points, sure to help the job security at my financial services firm when and if I return to work tomorrow.

I guess if I did lose my job and end up out on the streets, I know that Panera will take me and my laptop in.

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3 Responses to “Revisited: Hanging out at Panera”

  1. wrjones Says:

    Thanks – this is a blueprint for a great retirement to surf the net. Get the back corner and borrow someone’s laptop (those porn sites often have a VD like virus to share), wouldn’t want to sully my own laptop.

  2. morethananelectrician Says:

    You could also pick up spare laptops from the clumsy people that go there too…when yours craps out.

  3. travelerseeker Says:

    Great blog…totally cracked me up! I’m sitting in a Panera’s (Princeton, NJ) right now, freezing my butt off. There are no meetings going on, but I have noticed the power source issues. People are obnoxious, aren’t they?

    I wonder if here in Princeton, some of the profs hold classes and monopolize space… 🙂

    How about the jazz sax muzak? That really works my nerves. It’s in every store and it’s the same CD, being run on a loop. If I worked at P’s, I’d kill myself, perhaps by drowning myself in the cream of wild rice soup (which I happen to really dig.)

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