Monday, September 24, 2012

Panera, Pandora, Pantera?

Pantera was a 1980s-era heavy metal band led by some guy named Dimebag Darrell.  Dimebag met his unfortunate demise at the hands of a deranged fan at a concert in Ohio in 2004.

Pandora is either the first woman (according to Greek mythology), an Internet radio station, or a box that shouldn't be opened. 

Panera Bread Co., aka Panera, is a "national bakery-cafe concept with 1,541 Company-owned and franchise-operated bakery-cafe locations in 42 states, the District of Columbia, and Ontario, Canada."

Panera is a publicly traded company.  As an investment it has done remarkably well, as the chart above  will attest.  The stock price is up more than 55% in the past year.    I find this hard to believe.  

It's not that I think the concept is bad or that the food is sub par or that its freshly brewed iced tea doesn't taste like it is freshly brewed.  As a matter of fact, I eat there quite a bit.  Panera is a fine example of the "good food fast" phenomenon that is remaking the American restaurant landscape. Who has time for the luxury of table service anymore?

No, the members of my household are frequent Panera patrons.  We even have a loyalty card.  We almost have enough points for a free napkin or sugar packet. Maybe it's a free child's baguette.  I forget.   The stores are clean and offer free wi-fi. Its employees seem to me to be a well-educated, friendly bunch.  In a time of almost nonexistent customer service, Panera achieves a remarkably good score here. 

So, given our unwavering loyalty, what exactly is my beef?  

We have never–not once–gotten an order that is even close to correct.  I am not kidding.  I have lived it.  It has become the running joke of the Totty household.  

My oldest son has an aversion to condiments.  When we go to Panera this is his order:
"May I please have a ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette, except I just want it plain.  No lettuce, no tomato, no mustard or mayonnaise.  Just ham, cheese, and bread. Thank you."  
The Panera order taker nods in understanding, repeats the order for clarification, and then immediately orders him a bowl of French onion soup.  Or a club sandwich with extra avocado and basil chutney.

My youngest son, who limits himself to foods that either are white, sugar-laden, or deep fried, has similar luck.  
"May I please have a grilled cheese on a baguette and potato chips?" 
No one can screw up a grilled cheese, right? Wanna bet? To the Panera employee Alex' asking for a grilled cheese really means that he wants a pressed cuban sandwich with double anchovy paste and broccolini.    My daughter likes one of the panini sandwiches.   Bam! Salmon caesar salad with bleu cheese and tangerine slices coming right up!  It goes on and on. If we order one soup, we get two.  If we ask for chips, we get baguettes.  

For the first few times or so we failed to check the order before leaving and driving home. After about the fifth time we started getting suspicious but figured that there was no way they could get it wrong again.  After the tenth time we stopped taking chances. Our experience reminded me of this Joe Pesci scene from "Lethal Weapon 2."  Apologies for the expletives.   Are you going to tell Joe Pesci to stop cussing? Not me. No sir. I saw "Goodfellas." 

 We know the store manager by name.  He knows us by sight and/or voice.  We live just far enough away that we don't want the hassle of driving back there to get what we ordered, so my wife calls to remind them of their shortcomings. Regularly. In exchange for our trouble, we get vouchers for free food.  Lots of lots of vouchers.  We are like million-milers in frequent-flier programs.  We get everything free. Who needs a loyalty card when you can cash in on incompetence? Given the amount of free food that has been given to us I find Panera's stock price performance puzzling.  Panera must be the Enron of the restaurant business.  There is no way that Panera is actually achieving the financial results that it reports, given our experience.  

We keep trying to eat all the free food for fear that the chain will go under and we will be left with worthless vouchers but every time we visit we end up with more vouchers.  It's a total comedy.  Is the joke on us?  I dunno, we get free food, even if it is not what we ordered.  I might not laugh anymore but at least I'm full.