And I’ve been sharing with the organizers of a big Percy conference that will occur next year in the now-legendary St. Francisville my fake-sociological efforts to distinguish Percy-ism from (Wendell) Berry-ism. We Percy-ites see both good and bad effects of the national and multinational chains showing up in our Southern towns.
You are, of course, familiar with my unabashed appreciation for Waffle House and my fair-and-balanced semi-appreciation of Walmart.
But I’m moving on to Panera Bread:
1. It is more like home than any Southern diner, even the Waffle House. It is, in fact, luxurious. The old guys this morning were lounging around in the leather chairs in from of the fake fireplace. I have lots of Panera friends, who really do ask about the family and all that. I never got to know Berry’s basketball coach at Berry; our paths never crossed. But they did for a while almost every morning at Panera. He turned out to be a great guy that got me interested for a while in our losing D-3 team.
2. You’re allowed to stay as long as you want, with nobody monitoring whether you even bought a cup of coffee. Panera aims so much to be “home” that it is actually consciously a “welcoming environment” for the obviously homeless (as long as they act as if they were at home).
3. And you have the high-tech feature of speedy wi-fi access that never fails.
4. The coffee is overpriced, but better than Starbucks. It can’t compare to Dunkin’ Donuts or even McDonalds. But you can get it in a real mug if you want. The price of the coffee is actually quite just if you consider it booth or chair rental in what used to be called a cyber-lounge.
5. The food—except for the Bagels—isn’t great and is somewhat pricey. I’d rather eat at Waffle House. But: Panera has a secret menu with carbless options. A place called Panera doesn’t want to be outed for serving food that has nothing to do with bread.
6. The local employees seem friendly and easygoing, and they seemingly can bend rules if they want. Sometimes I get free coffee, partly in compensation for the fact that I can’t keep up with my Panera frequent-customer card and probably partly because I look homeless. But the truth is most every move is micromanaged by the “mental laborers” at the home office in St. Louis. And the locals tremble in fear of the periodic inspection from that home office.
7. No. 6 is both good and bad: The bad is obvious. The good is that Paneras are pretty much everywhere reliably the same while being numerous cuts above fast-food joints. I often seek them out when I’m on the road. It’s not quite Cheers—everyone can’t know your name everywhere, after all. But Walker Percy would appreciate the combination of friendliness and anonymity for a wonderer and wanderer.