This past week, I was hanging out in Princeton every day because I had to drop off and pick up my son at computer camp and it simply wasn’t worth the time to drive home or into the city. So I made Panera my office. God bless them, they provide free wi-fi, which is a great gift to the officeless, and have great scones and damned fine salads and sandwiches. Their rules are quite simple: If you’re there in the lunch rush, please don’t stay more than 30 minutes and if you’re alone, please don’t set up shop at a table for six. Otherwise, they just leave you alone. I’m grateful and so I wanted to thank Panera and give them this plug.
But working there for a week gives you another bonus: theater.
One day, I sit next to and cannot help eavesdropping on a guy who reminded me Dwight on The Office performing a job interview for some post in a web development shop. The guy was insufferable: pompous, pedantic, boring. He went on and on about how he had a brilliant concept for a site for an attorney (I’ll change the name to protect the humiliated): “Norbert Schmertz: Superlawyer!” He gave a lecture to the prospect about intellectual property by reading two pages of a memo, slowly. He droned on and on. I looked at the poor shnook across the table from the dweeb and wanted to walk over and say, “No, don’t do it, don’t take this job. You’ll live to regret it. They’re hiring at Panera. It’s much nicer. Save yourself before it’s too late.” But working in Panera is beaming onto a plent from the Enterprise: You don’t interfere.
I heard lots of job interviews and meetings between bosses and subordinates going over sales figures and assignments. This restaurant rents out rooms in the back for business meetings (‘hey, gang, we’re having our first offsite — at Panera’) and one day, I saw three geeky guys prepare the room for an hour, setting up their computers in a row and then in a taping paper over all the windows — never writing a word on any of it — apparently so we couldn’t steal their corporate secrets. Could be the next Google.
Most people kept their heads down into their laptops. The wise ones also wore headsets and I soon learned why. Some people who come into Panera, it seems, are lonely. One morning as I was rushing to get work done before my meter run out of the considerable change Princeton demands (and tickets are $60), a nice guy — an investor, he said — just wanted to chat. I tried to listen politely and give the cue that I needed to get work done, glancing back at my laptop again and again. He didn’t get the cue. Neither did the woman who came into the back one afternoon shouting into her cell phone to close bank accounts and cancel credit cards. Turns out she was getting divorced. Whenever she was put on hold, which was often, she would start telling me her life’s story, as much as I really didn’t want to know it, all about her therapy and her divorce and her self-image. Outside, I was nodding politely and trying to get my head back into my laptop. Inside, I was screaming, ‘Arrrrrggggghh!’ The woman could not let five second go by without filling the room with talk. Hate to say it, but inside I was also thinking that the divorce was not a huge surprise.
Now I’m sitting at home in my quiet office staring at the woods and I have to say, I kind of miss the show. Thanks, Panera.