Can a relaxed, suburban “third place” get away with selling a high sugar, high caffeine lemonade drink?

Since I am not a regular patron of Panera’s – though there are several within a several mile radius of my suburban address – I was not aware of a new drink in these pleasant and sociable spaces:

Photo by Gilmer Diaz Estela on Pexels.com

Technically, one could do the same thing at a McDonald’s or another more casual fast food spot. But given that McDonald’s isn’t exactly relaxing, it may not be people’s first choice for a leisurely afternoon hang. Panera, on the other hand, is what’s known as a “third place,” a special type of social environment that blurs the lines of work and home.

This concept originates from sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s 1989 book The Great Good Place, wherein he separates daily life into three distinct spaces. The first is the home, the second is the workplace, and the third is any other environment where people can freely gather and exist in public without obligation. Starbucks, notably, is explicitly designed with the third place in mind. As Forbes first wrote in 2015, Panera has increasingly been chasing this idea as well, arranging their stores more like living room spaces and encouraging customers to stick around by offering free Wi-Fi. Particularly with its Unlimited Sips program, Panera has shaped itself to be a third place where people can hang around with a low barrier to entry—even more so than Starbucks, where two drinks would cost as much as a month’s worth at Panera, and there aren’t even free refills.

All of this helps explain what makes this Panera lemonade situation so compelling. If it were a 7-Eleven selling chaos in a cup, nobody would think twice. Instead, it’s this suburban-feeling sandwich retailer that has shaped itself as a simulacrum of the neighborhood cafe. And that’s weird—a Charged Lemonade would be a better fit for the X Games vibe of Taco Bell, a chain that already flavors everything with Mountain Dew and Doritos dust. Panera seems so innocent—until you remember that they’re essentially feeding you a loaf of sourdough with every meal. At Panera, the mayhem is merely disguised by the presence of words like Napa and brioche, and the dissonance of it all abounds.

Nevertheless, for Baus, who says in the video that she hates working from her home, Panera is the perfect environment for both work and leisure. “It’s close to my house and it’s actually quiet,” she said. “I kept going to coffee shops that had loud music and very limited seating. Plus, Panera has the Unlimited Sip Club, which is much cheaper than paying for a coworking space.” For all these reasons, she says, she’ll continue to work from Panera—and yes, continue to glug the lemonade. “I have started watering it down about 70/30, though, because I don’t need that much sugar or that much caffeine,” she said.

My first two thoughts are these:

  1. Panera knows its audience.
  2. This is an embodiment of America today.

Imagine this scene: a semi-busy fast causal restaurant on a December morning with light snow. People are scattered around the tables and seats, some talking quietly, some working on devices. They all have a drink in front of them. Some have coffee, others water, more have a lemonade in different hues. As they drink and work or socialize, the levels of the drinks go down and then are quickly refilled. Some people leave, replaced by others and eventually the lunch crowd raises the volume of the place.

What powers the activity in this third place? Whether in coffee or soda or a lemonade drink, it is caffeine. For a country that sleeps poorly, this is the answer in suburbia.

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