Cafe Witness

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Panera: Keeping It Real

I'm in-between dual freelance video shoots today and have ducked into Panera in the Galleria Mall for a bowl of soup and some free wireless. Due to the unpredictability of freelance payments, I am on my last dime, so rolling at a place with food AND free wireless was the only way to go.

Of course, you can tell Panera is a real cafe because I'm not sitting here for five minutes before a guy peeks around the corner, sees me online, and asks if I'm getting a connection or not. I tell him I am, and it's moving swiftly. He returns to his seat, dejected, since the wireless obviously doesn't snake around that particular wall.

This brings up a good question:

What are Five Key Elements to a Good Cafe?

Everyone's answers will differ, which is why I didn't say "the" five elements. Here are mine:

1. Good coffee. This should go without saying, but I've had many a bad cup of coffee / latte / etc. in many a cafe across this wonderful world. Thus, let's establish the core reason for a cafe's existence: providing a quality cup of caffeine. Ideally, this extends to the teas (hot, iced or chai), syrups and bottled drinks, the pastries and the other edibles, but it all starts with a good house blend.

2. Inviting Atmosphere. Different cafes accomplish different goals. Some are meant for relaxing, some for socializing, some for inspiration. The best can do all of the above and more, depending upon layout, music choice and time of day. Top 40 radio stations on the PA, unpadded wooden chairs, dishes left scattered about? This helps no one. A clean (but not obsessively so) environment, cushy chairs that also offer support, smooth jazz and Sinatra? Now we're talking. Bonus points if there are enough flat surfaces to place your drinks on without needing to juggle.

3. Friendly Baristas. Granted, I don't need to know everyone's life story. Sometimes a little mystery goes a long way. But keep this in mind, baristas of the world: most of you are smart people. We know that, because this is the low-stress job you craftily chose during grad school, and we would never second-guess your decisions. But most of us are smart people, too. That's why we come in: for a recharge or a caffeine boost to help us get through our mentally taxing days. So when you sneer or talk about us under your breath, we pick up on that. If that affects your tip jar, so be it.

That said, a friendly barista is one of the day's pleasures. I've been known to choose one cafe over another solely because of the pseudo-bond I've formed with whomever I know happens to be working that night. Both barista and customer know they only ever get to see a small amount of the other's personality in a day, but it's amazing how much of one's personality comes through in those few exchanges each day, added up over time. Whether it's just "Your regular today?" or a lengthy story about what happened when your dog ran away, when totalled at the end of the year, you might just think you've learned enough about someone to actually "know" them. So, please, be someone worth knowing.

4. Variety. There's one cafe in town that actually flunks at least one of the above criteria, if not all three on some days, and yet I'll still go back every so often. Why? Because they have a great selection of food -- possibly the best in Pittsburgh. Obviously not every cafe is concerned about food selection -- "this isn't a restaurant," I've heard before, and they're right -- but the difference between a place that provides more than cookies, brownies and biscotti and a place that doesn't can be found around lunchtime or dinnertime, when I'm forced to migrate from a place I'd otherwise be happy to stay in for another cup, IF ONLY they had something to "eat."

The same applies to coffees and teas. Yes, too much choice is overwhelming. And yes, it's a pain in the ass to get accustomed to a seasonal drink, only to have it ripped from your clutches when the new season begins. But I would much rather pick and choose from a variety of coffees on a daily basis -- at LEAST a daily special -- than fall into the rut of "same ol', same ol'," day after day, week after week...

5. (Free) Wireless. Not everyone goes to cafes to work. I do. I need wireless. And, given the choice, I will ignore each and every one of the above criteria if I have a massive amount of work to do and only one coffee shop within 10 miles has free wireless. It's not even a choice for me; it's a necessity.

If I don't have work to do, this doesn't even occur to me. But when do I not have work to do? And if one cafe has made their wireless internet free to all customers and another forces its patrons to be customers of Provider X (Telerama, in Pittsburgh's case, or T-Mobile in all Barnes & Nobles) or pay a day rate for what will probably amount to a couple hours' usage, again, the choice is made for me.

Those are my criteria, broad-based as they may seem. What are yours?


  • Your list is fairly close to mine. In fact, probably identical.

    1.) Good coffee.
    2.) Wireless.
    3.) Room to work.
    4.) Reasonable ambiance (not too loud or too peppy).
    5.) Good distractions.

    Great question.

    By Blogger Chris, at 5:21 AM  

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