I have been toiling 6 days a week at a Panera Bread in Ithaca, New York. The job gave my first few months after graduating college a schedule, and a sense of purpose that I had already started to miss. It was an intravenous drip for my bank account, and came with the bonus of new skills learned, frustration, and occasional laughter with new friends.
I began bussing tables and passing out hors d'oeuvres in little black pants when I was 16 years old, and have worked in catering and various food-industry situations on and off ever since. Call me crazy, but I’ve always found it fun and weirdly satisfying to be on my feet for hours, bending to the whims of hungry people; the money is good, there’s never a dull moment, and it feels like honest work. I enjoy arranging an event, helping it go smoothly, and then breaking it down.
Panera was a familiar scene, but with more structure. For all of the monotony of working in the same area every day with the same script, though, I found joy in the small things. I broke rolls of coins like piñatas. I drew pictures for my managers on the envelopes where we kept our chits. The idea for what you’re reading was scrawled onto recite paper when no one was looking and stuffed into my apron pocket. Here are some of my fleeting thoughts from my days behind the counter:
Panera Customers are Disproportionately Named Dave, Kathy Or Cheryl
Take my word for it.
Commas are an Archaic, Pre-Texting Tool That Few Understand
Example 1: If I asked people whether they would like an apple, chips, or bread as their side, a large number would answer ‘apple chips’. The order had to be switched to prevent confusion.
Example 2: At least once a day, someone ordered a “mango wildberry strawberry banana smoothie!!!” (hint: those are 4 different flavors, separated on our menu board by the elusive comma.)
People Can Be Mean
Being a cashier is not rocket science, but when you’re taking orders from hundreds of people in the span of a few hours, it’s not difficult to make a mistake or two. For this reason, the real skills required to be a cashier are not strong button-pushing fingers, but an immense amount of patience and grace. The other day, a fellow employee said to me that, in the way that some countries require all citizens to join the army for a few years, ours should require everyone to work briefly in food service*. It was a bitter reaction to being yelled at by an ornery old woman who threw her incorrect drive-through order into our ice bucket. I couldn’t help but smile imagining her on the other side of the register.
* Is that not the most American thing you’ve ever heard?
People, In General, Are Kind
In the five weeks that I worked as a cashier, 3 different people offered me a tip. I told each of them that I wasn’t allowed to accept them. When I explained them that I was on camera, and could actually be reprimanded for accepting their dollar, all three insisted on leaving it in an inconspicuous place. One man asked, “Well, do you sweep the floors?” When I told him that I did, he dropped his dollar bill on the floor, smiled, and walked away.
I'm sure these people have forgotten the dollar they gave to their cashier at Panera, but I will remember the $3 I collected from these instances long after I have spent the last of my paychecks.
Children Are A Mystery
A little girl with Disney princess heels and a smile full of missing teeth came up the register with a voucher for a free pastry. She said, “I’m having a dispute between a brownie and a cinnamon roll. Do you make them every night?” While inwardly marveling at a seven year old using the word ‘dispute’, I explained to her that we do indeed make new pastries every night, and also hinted that the brownies tend to disappear faster than the cinnamon rolls. Her eyes lit up and she immediately decided on a brownie. Feeling like a cool older sister, I asked her which brownie from behind the counter she would like. She gave me a look and said, “it doesn’t matter, ma’am.” MA’AM.
It was hard to preserve my remaining dignity while trying to separate brownies with tongs. The whole encounter left me feeling like a 22 year old dinosaur, until I remembered how offended I get when people think I’m 16.
Ignorance is Bliss
There are some caveats for this section. None of this is an attack on Panera: they are a well-oiled machine that cares deeply about cleanliness, transparency, and serving the freshest food possible. They bake their breads, bagels and bakery items fresh every day, have us sweep and mop like swabbies, and will always put on a pair of fresh gloves before preparing your food if you notify them of an allergy.
It’s just that… something about watching my peers drop handfuls of pulled chicken from a tub onto identical slices of bread has really killed my desire for those sandwiches. That’s all. More caveats, though: most food preparation involving meat freaks me out, and I would probably have this same reaction after being behind the line in any place where food is mass-produced. Nevertheless, if everyone was required to work in the food industry for a year, I do think people would begin to save a lot of money by cooking for themselves.
Now, as my time at this blessed establishment has just drawn to a close, I'm feeling sentimental. I've said my goodbyes and used my final employee discount on a highly-customized grilled cheese sandwich. I definitely feel like a better person for having worked here for the short time I did. As with every experience, the lens through which I view life is a bit different coming out of the other side.