Jessai Flores

Panera is a peculiar beast. It is a fast food chain with the pomp of an upscale shoe store. It is a sandwich joint dressed in the scenery of an airport cafeteria. It is the counterpart, the rival, the pricey contemporary of Starbucks, the cafe renowned for their annual obsession with pumpkins. Together they are twins. Panera is the Romulus to Starbucks’ Remus in the story of the American fast-casual empire. Like twins, each one is different despite the identical roles they play. Unlike the money vacuum that sucks you into a Starbucks cafe with the promise of a quick, one-stop treat, Panera is where you go when there are no more options left. Panera is where you find yourself wanting to see the world blur past you beyond the window — or when you feel the urge to spend $20 on a grilled cheese meal.

The Panera at Yale, which sits across from the art museum and a few storefronts away from — would you look at that — Starbucks is the perfect place to munch on a giant chocolate chip cookie while ignoring the crumbling infrastructure of your study habits and academic performance. Did you wake up 40 minutes late to your senior English seminar? Eat one of Panera’s broccoli cheddar soups. Have you skipped your Computer Science lecture all semester and now the midterm is tomorrow? Have one of Panera’s many flatbread pizzas. Did you get another pesky email about the sauna soon-to-be locker room in Payne Whitney? Have an everything bagel — whatever that means. 

At Panera, the world can be falling apart as quickly as one of their sandwiches, but at least there is some comfort in knowing that everyone is there for the same reason you are. That man in the suit? He just joined the Panera Sip Club and does not know how to unjoin it. The woman eating her sandwich off her gigantic Norton anthology? She has to read all of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in the 20 minutes she has between working at the Marx Library and her British literature seminar. Panera is a circus of people trying their best at ignoring the worst, and there is nothing wrong with that. When the world ends, Panera will be there with a plate of the most expensive sandwich you will ever eat from a chain restaurant. It is homely, it is reliable, it is like a childhood friend made out of avocado on toasted rye.

What is Panera if not the first rung on the ladder of affluence? For almost $25, one can experience a small, carbohydrate-filled bite of luxury. Panera is where the good life flashes its ankle and enchants you with hibiscus iced tea. It is a colosseum of carbs and in the center a cornucopia of sandwiches. Perhaps it is expensive not just because the ingredients are organic, but because to eat at Panera is to experience eating a bread bowl. Think of Panera like the Olive Garden of sandwich shops. It is expensive, but just enough that it is affordable for everyone — and also it has bread … lots of it. Its name also embodies its status as an upper-crust bread-exclusive fast food joint. How can one go wrong with a name like Panera Bread? The word “panera” seems to be referring to the uncommon Spanish word for breadbasket, and maybe the Latin word for bread, “panem.” So, Panera Bread really just means “bread breadbasket bread.” It is a bit redundant when you think about it, but it does make some sense. Breadbaskets have lots of loaves in them. Lots of loaves can make sandwiches, and what does Panera Bread — i.e. Breadbasket Bread — sell? Exactly. Panera plays chess and we are the gluttons on the board.

Panera is the odd, baguette-shaped pillar holding up the American pantheon of restaurant chains. Imagine that thousands of years from now, some future archeologist will find the remnants of an ancient Panera. Will they wonder what kind of civilization were we to have invented plastic flatware and cutlery upon which to eat bread and nothing else? Will they look at the Starbucks logo on the cups from a combination — no doubt — Panera and Starbucks, and will they see that green mermaid as the ancient American goddess of bread? Will she be named Panera? Or will Panera only exist in our hearts? Whatever it is, that silly little sandwich store will be there as we cross our Rubicons and seize our days. 

At Panera, history ends and begins with a sandwich. It is there where you can come and see and conquer, even if it is just to distract yourself from the eight-page midterm paper you have due in two days. And there will be bread. Oh, there will be bread.