Food friends, your old pal Michael is getting a little soft in his old age, and it’s not just because of all the gas station pizza I eat. A couple of years ago, I used this space to slag off the Panera Bread restaurant chain, which at that time had only just begun to pop up in central Arkansas. I referred to their dining rooms as “antiseptic and blandly decorated.” I called the tomatoes on their sandwiches “spongy.” I believe I even went so far as to compare the place with new age musician John Tesh.
It must have been something I ate.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t going to turn into the sort of mea culpa post I’ve done in the past about joints like Local Lime and Maddie’s Place. There’s been no great dining experience at Panera that’s changed my mind about the place, and I don’t expect there to be. But I’ve found myself making the Panera near my house a regular Sunday breakfast stop here lately, and there are two main reasons for it: First, the people who run that location are decidedly friendly and efficient. More than two people in line? They’ll bring someone up to carry the load. Don’t see a pastry you want on the shelf? They’ll check to see if any are baking and give you an estimation of when things will be done. I love friendly service (who doesn’t?), and I get it from my local Panera in Midtown on the regular.
The second reason has everything to do with a severe and crippling addiction that I’ve had for years: coffee, particularly iced coffee. Many a summer Sunday I’ve awoken, parched and sleepy, and all that sounds good to me is an ice-cold drink laced with glorious caffeine. And while Panera isn’t serving iced coffee in the same league as folks like Mylo Coffee Co., they do theirs in a way that keeps me coming back again and again—they let customers make their own. And they let you get refills. I’m hooked.
Self-serve coffee is nothing new, of course. I can recall many nights of sitting on Dickson Street at Emerald Coast (now Common Grounds) drinking cup after bottomless cup of the various flavors available. But iced coffee never seems to work that way. From McDonald’s to Starbucks (not that I see much difference between the two), you pull up, you order, and you’re at the mercy of whoever is making drinks as to what you get. At Panera, I can decide how much ice I want in my coffee (My wife wants lots; I like far less). I get to adjust the amount of half-and-half that goes in. And when I sit down to tap on my laptop, I get to get as much of it as I want, because Panera keeps their iced coffee out on the drink station along with the soda machine and the tea dispensers. Glorious!
I’m still not wild about Panera’s pastries or sandwiches. And this coffee is never going to win awards. But it’s cheap, it’s perfectly fine…and you can drink a lot of it. And when it comes to getting my wake-time buzz on, that can make all the difference.