On the rare days that I leave work to pick up lunch, I always drive past Panera Bread and briefly consider it for a moment. Then I remember that I would have to actually walk into the store and what that actually entails, and I keep driving. Listen, I like Panera just as much as the next person — I’d sell my husband’s left nut right now for one of those croissants with the strip of chocolate in the middle. But there is no fresher hell for even the mildly socially awkward than the pain that is ordering lunch at Panera Bread.
The first issue I have to resolve when I walk into a Panera is the fact that, no matter what time of day I enter that store, there’s no line. People congregate somewhat near the registers, hesitantly lingering nearby and hoping someone will make an executive decision and form a line. But where? The multiple counters and registers drawing from a single line is another source of anxiety — are there two lines? Are we forming one line for both registers? Who was here first? Are you even fucking IN line at all? Are these people over here still deciding, or did I just cut in front of a room full of passive-aggressive white-collar employees who will make things extremely uncomfortable for the next twenty minutes forcing me to listen and wonder if they’re talking about me in voices just loud enough for me to kind of hear them talking, but not loud enough for me to actually be able to make out the words and create a confrontational situation?
I understand why no one wants to commit to actually getting in line, though — the menu is a nightmare. This might make me sound like a moron, but there are zero pictures or descriptions on the menu. Don’t ask me to possibly commit to something called a “Quinoa and Lentil Broth Bowl” without at least confirming with me via image that yes, my idea of what a lentil looks like is correct. Plus, what kind of broth? Chicken? Tomato? Is “tomato” technically a broth flavor? Are there green peppers in it? I hate green peppers. But I can’t really communicate that to the person at the register, because it will reveal how utterly uncool I am, and as far as I can tell, the very act of successfully ordering your lunch at Panera is an exercise in determining how cool you are.
After you order, you have to move down to the waiting window. Now I have to remember the number on my receipt while trying to listen for someone to say it AND try to stay out of everyone’s way while they try to fill their fountain drinks. God forbid I’m not in earshot when they call my name and I want extra dressing — the people behind the counter at Panera are busy people, and don’t have time to wait around and listen to your extra requests. They disappear, like an underpaid thief in the night, to prepare the next Flaxseed and Chai Grilled Chicken Salad. Your moment is over. You were in, and now you’re out. Panera has moved on to the next new, exciting thing, and IT IS NOT YOU.
Woe to those who stay and eat their lunch, instead of immediately cutting their losses and escaping to their over-air-conditioned office to artlessly gnaw at their oddly-sized baguette. You get to sit in front of all the other hip people (who probably didn’t ask a million questions at the register about their broth bowls, including “Is it soup?”) and wonder whether or not this is really what you ordered, or if they’re banking on you being clueless enough to not be able to tell that they just gave you whatever the hell they wanted.
Let’s be honest, though — you’re going to eat it anyways, and then when spend your drive back to work kicking yourself for not going to McDonald’s, which is what you really wanted in the first place. That place just really gets me.
Follow me on Facebook and Twitter so you never miss a post. Better yet, pop your email address in the box at the top of the page and subscribe! Also, you can read my essays in I Just Want to Be Alone, I Still Just Want to Pee Alone, and You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth!