What I Learned when My Panera Closed

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On July 10, I walked into my local Panera shop to take out a turkey and avocado sandwich and was told that the place would be closing five days later. I hadn’t been prepared for that.

As you probably know, Panera is a chain of sandwich shops. The menu is limited but tasty. You can take out or eat in, and if you choose the latter, the seating is pretty comfortable. Food is moderately priced. I visited Panera about twice a week, usually to take something out but sometimes to sit down and enjoy one of the small hot breakfast sandwiches — scrambled egg (or over easy) with bacon and cheese.

I have no moral objection to maximizing one’s profits. Yet I remembered what I’d seen in my Panera during its busy hours.

But now I’d have to find another place for such minor pleasures and conveniences, and that wouldn’t be easy. My Panera was only 1,000 steps from where I live. I didn’t want to get up early on Saturday morning and drive someplace for a breakfast sandwich. And if I wanted to get something on my way home, I didn’t feel like driving six miles out of my way, to the now-nearest Panera. My life would change — only a little, but not for better. I liked the people who worked at my Panera, and they liked me enough to give me advance notice of their closing. I was glad to hear that places had been found for them in other Paneras. But I would miss them.

Why was my Panera closing? “We do a good business in the morning and afternoon, but as you know, the place is sort of empty after 6 pm.” All right; I have no moral objection to maximizing one’s profits. Yet I remembered what I’d seen in my Panera during its busy hours.

The knitting club that occupied several tables once or maybe twice a week. The perpetual Scrabble people. Quite a few people meeting for cards. The basically-gay Meet Up every Saturday morning, where anyone could sit around and talk with anyone without fear of embarrassment. The low-income families who regarded Panera as a luxury restaurant. The old lady who infested the place, plumping her bag down at a table and then wandering around finding ways to talk to strangers — complimenting their hairstyles or their boyfriends or their reading matter and generally making herself a nuisance. But who can tell? Maybe the people who were nice to her — and everyone was, except me, who always hid in a book at her close approach — really valued her attentions.

What would happen to her, now that the place was closing? What would happen to the knitters and the Scrabblers and the chatters? Where would they go?

Change happens. Business decisions are made. But the loss of my Panera made me realize, though not for the first time, how precious what they call capitalist business is.

When you drive through the great heartland of America and stop to take a piss or buy a hamburger at McDonald’s, you often find that you’re in the place where the whole town hangs out. If it weren’t for McDonald’s, where would the farmers get together to gripe about their crops? Where would the teenagers woo and scream? Where would the church ladies plot their next fundraiser? Maybe in the church basement, if they were forced to do so. But they’d rather go to McDonald’s.

Before my Panera, there was another restaurant in that space, a very nice Italian restaurant. It moved to another place in town, and I could no longer walk there to eat. So that was a loss. Change happens. Business decisions are made. But the loss of my Panera made me realize, though not for the first time, how precious what they call capitalist business is.

How precious, and how fragile. I know of towns where nearly all the businesses have died. Try being an old person in a town like that, and wanting to go someplace to get some coffee. Or see people you know. To just get out of the house! A capitalist business gives you a way to do all that. In fact, capitalist businesses give you most of the pleasures in your life. Yes, they may go away, but the biggest problem is that when they do, you’re left with the things that won’t go away, which are the non-capitalist businesses. There are towns I know where the only things open are the police station, the DMV, and the welfare bureau.

So that’s what I learned when my Panera closed. Maybe it will be replaced by an even friendlier focus of the neighborhood. I hope so. I hope that the obnoxious old Panera lady will find someplace pleasant to spend her days. If she does, it will almost undoubtedly be because some capitalist wanted her business. And mine.




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