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Wednesday 29 September 2004

Panera Bread, Reston Town Center

Panera Bread, Reston Town Center

Panera Bread, Reston Town Center, Reston VA, as seen on 20 September 2004 at 5:30 p.m. That the wireless network was temporarily kaput probably had something to do with the fact that it was so deserted. That, plus everyone in Fairfax County seemed to be spending the hour stuck in traffic out on Reston Parkway.

Panera is a St. Louis thing; in St. Louis, they’re called ‘St. Louis Bread Company’, but it’s exactly the same restaurant once you’re inside (or inside most of ‘em, anyway: the very old locations still have their original decor, which isn’t as nice). I’ve been a fan of the place for fifteen years, and when I moved to Washington one of the things I missed most about St. Louis was the ability to get decent bread. I’m sure that there are good bakeries somewhere in Washingtonia, but you have to understand that in St. Louis there are St. Louis Bread Companies all over the place; you can get (reasonably) good bread anywhere.

Anyway, it’s always been a competent operation, and so I was not particularly surprised when Panera started offering free wireless network access in all their company-owned locations (and, it seems, in a good number of the franchise locations, too). They didn’t embark on a ‘study’ like McDonald’s is famously supposed to have done somewhere; they didn’t sign up with T-Mobile for their laughably expensive service; and they didn’t roll the service out to a very few locations with a promise of more to come at some unspecified time in the (distant) future. They just installed the damned APs, stuck some very small stickers on the front doors, and turned the thing on.

And, best of all, they don’t explicitly charge for the service. It must cost them something to operate the network, and so a small part of the price of every bowl of soup they sell goes to pay for the network, but the point is: if you’re in the place, you’re connected, without buying anything else.

And this is great, because it’s a better accommodation for the way I use the network in a place like that. I have a home and an office; I am not going to do serious work in a noisy restaurant while running off battery power. I’m going to check my e-mail, read the news, and exchange a few IMs with people I know who don’t like talking on the phone any more than I do. Starbucks (to name one example) wants me to pay the Germans $30 a month — $40 a month if I don’t sign up for a yearly contract — to be able to use the network in their shops. This is about what I pay for my DSL service at home. For a service that I have use while running off batteries, in a place where I have to spend money just to occupy a seat, that’s more than a little too much for occasional use; so I will hang out at Starbucks’ less and Panera more.

Which is how I wound up at Panera with a little bit of time to kill the other day, and found the network to be hors de combat.

I stuck around for a while to see whether the network would start working again — I could connect to the local access point, and the DHCP server was working, but it appeared that their connection to the outside world had gone south — before giving up and leaving.

This is the problem with ‘free’ goods. That I’m not directly and overtly paying for the service means that Panera doesn’t expend a lot of effort to make sure that I’m satisfied with my non-purchase. On Panera’s regular public website, there appears to be no mention at all — aside from notations in the location-finder — of their wireless network service. I actually approve of this, because they don’t mention that they have air conditioning and electric lighting either, and I think the network in a place like this should be a basic utility.

But it’s not, yet, and so there’s not a crack team of people dedicated to tracking down and solving the problem — or at least to putting up some kind of notice of the problem to be served from the local AP — the way there almost certainly is should, say, one of the ovens break down.

All in all, though, if this is the worst thing that happens to me all month, I’m ahead of the game. But I’d still like to see a high-bandwidth works-(almost)-anywhere network service that charges some kind of reasonable price. As much as I like not paying for Panera’s service, I’d prefer to pay for what I really want.

Posted by tino at 18:06 29.09.04
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Tracked: February 21, 2005 09:50 AM

I too have consistent problems connecting to the Panera network in Reston. I find it amusing that in the same building is the Hyatt, which charges $10 a day for the privilege of wireless access. So I could click on Panera, and maybe get a slow connection, or I could click on Hyatt, and get a screen requesting my credit card info.

Or I could do away with Town Center completely and go to Greenberry’s, in the Home Depot shopping center. Consistent, speedy, and they never say a word to me just sitting there, not drinking their coffee.

Posted by: at September 30, 2004 01:12 AM