Sep 20

You want skin with your coffee?

It's somehow comforting to know terrible customer service isn't the sole domain of New Jersey Panera1 Transit. It's actually alive and well in tony Brookline, Massachusetts, where the local Panera eatery may employ the most illiterate employees north of Secaucus Junction.

We frequent the Coolidge Corner Panera whenever we visit Repman, Jr.  (who lives nearby and pursues his master's degree in history at the white hot Northeastern University).

So, our dismal customer experience this past Sunday morning was in no way unique. Allow me to explain.

While it boasts a Peet's or Starbucks-like environment replete with soft jazz music, overstuffed chairs and Kindle-toting patrons, Panera's similarity to the higher-end chains ends there.

Once one survives a long wait on line, one places an order that must, repeat, must fall strictly within the guidelines of the menu. So, for example, if one prefers his egg whites without a bagel, the conversation quickly deteriorates faster than a Mets' fan's hopes in late Spring.

“You no want bagel?” the counter attendant asked me. “No,” I replied. “Just the eggs. Thanks.” He shook his head. “Not on menu. What type bagel?” I tried explaining my desire for bagel-free egg whites, but he continued to resist.

Finally, after a moment or so, he shouted, “Margie!”

Out strode a middle-aged woman who clearly knew the ropes. “What's the issue, sweetie?” She asked me. I explained there was no real issue, just a desire to be bagel free. She sighed, shook her head in a disapproving way, whispered something into the attendant's ear and, magically, my order was placed.

Next came my wife's trial by fire. Her order was simpler: a walnut raisin muffin and large coffee with skim milk. “You want skin with coffee?” The attendant asked incredulously. “No,” said my wife, “skim milk.” The server was completely baffled. “Skin?” Being the provocateur that I am, I stepped forward and added, “Yeah, and would you mind throwing in a finger or two, a spleen and some toenails?” This wasn't a language barrier, mind you. The attendant spoke English. He simply didn't, or wouldn't, respond to the request.

Back came Margie. If looks could kill, Ang and I would be dead on arrival. “What's the issue this time?” She sniffed. My wife said she wanted skim milk with her coffee. Margie didn't answer. Instead, she just pointed behind us to a partially obscured stand containing various types of milk and cream.

We grabbed our food and sat down, shaking our heads at yet another horrific user experience. While it was conveniently located to my son's spacious bachelor pad, we decided to place Panera on our endangered species list.

When will brands understand that customer service has become the new public relations? Billboards outside the Brookline Panera boast of its steaming hot coffee, wide assortment of bagels, croissants and breakfast fare. And, of course, the billboards come replete with photographs of smiling customers.

My visceral reaction to the marketing materials was similar to the one I experience whenever an NJT conductor announces an indefinite delay, but doesn't bother to add why it was caused or how long it would last.

Until, and unless, brands begin closing the gaps between what their marketing messages boast and what an end user experiences, they'll continue to lose customers (and, all the time, be at a complete loss as to the exact reason why).

We went into Panera hungry for breakfast. We left feeling like a combination of Jack Nicholson's character in 'Five Easy Pieces' and some sort of real-world Hannibal Lecter, who'd just ordered skin with their coffee.

So, note to Rep, Jr.: track down a new eatery in Coolidge Corner. Panera has bungled its last order for the Cody Clan. Oh, and I'll take an eyebrow to go with my egg whites.