Inspired by a little-known picture book from the pen of Bethany Tudor, this is a diary, of sorts, where I document some of my thoughts, activities, and ideas as I explore the challenges met by the characters in the story: hard work, the care and nurture of others, housekeeping skills, life changes, charity, community, and cooperation, among others. Like Samuel and Samantha, the ducks in the tale, I struggle and succeed, cope and celebrate, work and play, handling the tasks that come my way. I invite you to join me on my journey.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Soup Was Good

Warning: Squawking zone ahead!

A couple of weeks ago, my family and I went shopping for some new curtains and curtain rods at one of the local strip malls. Since this errand was just on the downside of the dinner hour, we decided to visit Panera Bread for supper. Now, I must confess, I have eaten at this restaurant several times and, each time, I walk away with the same question ringing in my head:

What is so appealing about this place?

As with most other issues in life, I am in the minority in asking this question. According to the company website:
Panera Bread is widely recognized for driving the nationwide trend for specialty breads. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Panera Bread scored the highest level of customer loyalty among quick-casual restaurants, according to research conducted by TNS Intersearch. Furthermore, for the fourth consecutive year, Panera Bread was rated among the best of 121 competitors in the Sandleman & Associates 2005 national customer satisfaction survey of more than 62,000 consumers. Panera Bread has also won “Best-of” awards in nearly every market across 38 states.
Also from their website:
Panera Bread is expanding quickly across America, currently operating 1027 bakery-cafes in 38 states. Among these locations, 391 are company-owned and 696 are franchised. 170-180 new bakery-cafes (85-90 company-owned and 85-90 franchise) are targeted to open in 2007.
So, everybody loves this restaurant and, because of that, new Paneras are popping up all over.

Well, forgive my lack of enthusiasm over this development in the “quick casual” restaurant segment, but being the daughter of a pastry chef, the sister of a line cook, the daughter-in-law of a career waitperson/server, a former restaurant worker myself, and a regular consumer in this market segment, I have a few Panera pet peeves:

- the print on the menu board describing the ingredients in each sandwich or salad is microscopic! I almost need binoculars to read it. My friend, Koalagirl15, is a Panera fan and she tells me that a printed menu sits directly next to the “ordering station.” Admittedly, this has escaped my notice every time I have visited Panera, possibly because their less-than-cordial employees have never directed me there.

- the menu board is located behind and slightly after the order counter, not before it, so new diners have two choices when ordering: clog up/slow down the customer order queue while reading the microscopic print in order to formulate their meal choices OR partake of the Gnostic menu enlightenment that the staff so clearly expects every customer to possess. Obviously, I am not blessed with this secret knowledge; else I would find Panera a more pleasurable dining experience.

- the “drink station” is miniscule, barely large enough to queue up more than 2-3 beverages at a time, causing yet another clog in the assembly line toward the “food pickup station.” Plus, my beverage of choice is hot tea, an order the staff rarely gets right. They usually try (repeatedly, I might add) to give me some sort of iced chai number; and, when they do finally understand that I want hot tea, I am greeted with a mug of hot water, which I must then carry away from the “drink station” in order to dig a tea bag out of the appropriate lidded glass jar on a shelf in front the beverage area. Even if the server had wanted to put a tea bag in my cup before adding the hot water (the proper way to make tea, I might add), he/she would need to walk completely around the counter to do so. Not horribly efficient.

- the do-it-yourself trash disposal system is tacky and, quite possibly, a violation of the health code when not properly attended by the staff. With such a trendy, comfortable, upscale d├ęcor, you would think Panera could devise a better parting image for their diners than an overstuffed bin of dirty dishes with half-eaten soup still in the bowls. Yuck! Is it really too much to ask for a restaurant to keep the “wet” garbage in the work area of their establishment? I don’t think so.

- customization of sandwich orders is impossible unless you want to wait twenty minutes (or more) for your order to be completed. If I intended to wait for my dinner, I wouldn’t be in a “quick casual” eatery; I would go to Olive Garden or Ruby Tuesdays or the local pizza joint.

- when I order soup with a sandwich, the employees never put them on the same serving tray, even though space is plentiful. I usually end up with at least four trays for two sandwiches, some chips, and a bowl of soup. This seems wasteful of serving paper, not to mention the dishwashing detergent required to wash all those extra trays. I thought the goal these days was to be environmentally responsible? Distributing my meal amongst numerous trays also makes it necessary to grow a few more hands in order to carry my entire dinner order to the table in one trip. On my last visit, it took three people (my daughter, a attitudinally-challenged supervisor, and myself) to transfer three sandwiches, two bowls of soup, and a few bags of chips to our table. Ridiculous!

Truth be told, the biggest problem with this place is ME. I eat out A LOT and, when I do, I like to be waited on. Panera makes me work too hard for my meal, and it makes me do so in a terse and surly environment. For the same price (or cheaper), I can go someplace else where I am personally greeted by a pleasant restaurant owner and waited on by cheerful, helpful servers. Sometimes, I even get to chat with the cook. What does Panera have to offer that competes with that?!

One kind word: the Cream of Chicken and Wild Rice soup was quite tasty. I would recommend it. I would just get it to go.

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