Monday, January 26, 2009

The New Frugality, Part 2

Neil Halstead--"Hi-Lo And In Between" (mp3)
Paul Westerberg--"Daydream Believer (live) (mp3)

As everything falls to pieces around them, McDonald's is doing fine. So is Panera Bread. What do these two mainstays of "eating out" have in common? Is Panera the new McDonald's? Is Panera the McDonald's of the upper middle class? Inquiring minds want to know.

Unfortunately, I don't have the definitive answer. But each Sunday, when various portions of my family head to a beautiful Episcopal church, I go to the "Church of Ope." Ope is my dad; the church holds its services at Panera.

So I guess you could say I'm a regular. I see many of the same people each Sunday, though few of them know that they are at Ope's church. "Ope" is short for "Opah" is a somewhat ironic name adopted by my children when their own nickname for my father lost out to their Chicago relative's name--"Ope." At Ope's church, my father holds forth on a number of topics that don't vary much from week to week--Obama's weakness as a candidate, Obama's weaknesses as a nominee, Obama's weaknesses as a president, all of which finishes with this gentle coda: "But I guess we need to give him a chance to see what he can do."

So, sometimes my eyes wander while he's talking, and today I zeroed in on the menu. Here's what I noticed: everything on the Panera menu costs less than 7 dollars.

And I suppose that is the "genius" of the place. In the New Frugality, to be able to go out to a nice, clean place that offers a variety of freshly-made sandwiches, soups, and salads with better-than-average coffee and loaves of bread baked in-store that you can take home, and not spend more than 7 bucks a person (if you drink water), you, me, and the rest of America considers that a pretty good deal.

Or, at least they appear to be freshly-made. If you've ever seen them proofing the bread, you know that the loaves have been made elsewhere in some corporate laboratory and shipped to each branch for thawing and eventual baking. In that way, Panera is no better than Subway. If you've ever looked at the ingredients of the soups, then you know that the soups have the same large carbon footprint, unless, of course, you, like Panera, feel the need to add a variety of chemicals and preservatives to the soup you are cooking on your stove. The salads? Some taste experts at large testing sites in New Jersey have designed the combinations of ingredients that they think you will like best.

And so, yes, I'd say Panera is the new McDonald's, for those who don't want to be seen going to McDonald's. And that's most of us who harbor pretensions of one sort or another. And that is the key to its success. Take me. I'm a food snob, if there ever was one, and yet I like Panera. I like the vibe. I feel healthier eating the food there than I do at other places with comparable prices. I like that no one seems to be rushing me out the door. Yeah, I've seen the studies about how Panera's has reduced the number of outlets for its computer users, but that doesn't really affect me. I'm just looking for a place where my dad enjoys sitting and getting a steamed skim milk that he can stir in the Ovaltine he's brought from home.

Panera has established itself as a similar kind of gathering place for you, but you already knew at. And in these tough economic times, it feels like one of the best corporate friends we regular folks have.

FOOTNOTE: Usually, when I get to Panera's, my dad has already bought me an "everything" bagel and a cup of coffee. Today, I got there at at the same time he did and thought, you know, I want something lighter. I think I'll just get a cinnamon roll. Boy, was I wrong. The bagel has 2.5 grams of fat; the cinnamon roll has 35 grams of fat! And 15 of those grams are saturated fat! That's more fat than 4 slices of Little Caesar's pepperoni pizza.

We've got to make sure that in trying to save a few dollars we aren't killing ourselves.

Neil Hastead's song, one of my favorite songs of the last 10 years, comes from his cd, Sleeping On Roads, available at Itunes. Westerberg live, doin' the Monkees, well, to tell you the truth, I don't remember where that comes from, but I doubt you're getting it anywhere but here.

1 comment:

Billy said...

Just yesterday morning (alas, we didn't see you there) we forked over a scant $17 for enough bagels and fruit to fill two big tummies, two child tummies, and one baby tummy. And that included two kid glasses of milk, two things of cream cheese, and two fancy coffees.

"Not a bad deal," is exactly how we thought about it.