Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Wonderful World of Panera

So, I am sitting at Panera Bread on High Street the other day in-between meetings, checking emails (got me a while to get on their free wireless network by the way). I stayed there for quite a bit and it was just interesting to observe the movements in the store. And before I get there and tell you more, let me just say - for those who are curious to know - that I find the pastries / breakfast items in general good but too sweet.

In the course of the 40-50 minutes I spent there, I saw a wide array of customers and staff. Customers were either tourists waiting to hop on a city tour, go to the nearby Aquarium, or visit Faneuil Hall which is just close by or people working in the office buildings around. I would characterize the style of the tourists I saw as preppy / suburban for the most part. Those folks may have stayed in nearby hotels too which happen to all be expensive.

There was a pretty strong disconnect between those tourists and the Panera Bread crew – all good people it seems and a reflection of America’s Lumpen Proletariat: Saïd, the store manager, from North Africa; several Latino men and women, generally in non-customer facing positions (fixing sandwiches), a couple of African-American folks, including one who had the distinct honor to clean the bathrooms every 10-15 minutes, and a middle-aged lady from I would guess Kurdistan or Iraq, maybe Iran.

The reason why you’ll find those folks working at Panera is because Panera does not pay high wages. Here in Massachusetts there is a minimum wage and I don’t know to what extent it is enforced. But I am guessing the Panera employees make less than $10 an hour – more like $7-8. In the meantime, I am paying around $2-2.50 with tax for my too sweet muffin / scone and $1.80 for a small cup of coffee. So, yes this is an expensive place.

It is “prime location”, mind you. The store is at the very end of High Street, at the corner of the new Rose Kennedy Greenway (where the Central Artery used to be) and the whole area has been beautified with the extra bonus of being close to the water and Boston Harbor.

That Panera Bread store is quite typical of other coffee / sandwich places in big cities in America: top location, hefty prices, underpaid staff, pretty fat margins I would guess (I can’t see how the rent makes up more than a small percentage of the overall cost).

Alright, but let’s be positive for a second – and I am thinking in particular of the non-US folks I saw in that store. Isn’t that what the American Dream is all about as well? Saïd is a store manager for god’s sake – I did not see any “white anglo” in the staff, he is the boss. The Panera crew did not seem overly depressed (can’t say that the big guy cleaning the bathrooms seemed particularly overjoyed though). They are making $7-8 an hour and hopefully, they get health insurance. Then they probably have another job and their spouse works hard too and their kids will someday go to college – perhaps to a state school and on from there.

I am thinking that they have to believe that it is possible to come to this country, stay, and thrive to some extent at least. Or not? The middle-aged woman from Kurdistan / Iraq (who wore a headscarf btw) sat down next to me for her break – I observed her discretely and at some point she looked outside and just stared blankly. The light was gorgeous that morning, beautiful late summer day. But I could no help but think about where that lady’s mind must have been wandering at that moment – maybe back home in her village, or small town, or big city, having fun with her cousins and friends?

The American Dream, whether she and others believe in it, comes at a price – even in the Wonderful World of Panera.

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