“ I made it Perfect” was how I was greeted this morning at my local Panera Bread Cafe by Sierra, a newly promoted member of the management team. The “it” was my coffee order:

Large Hazelnut with Almond Milk and 4 sugars on the side

I chuckled and responded with, “Oh? That means I’ll have to post a new photo.” As a member of the #CoffeeCorps on Twitter and Instagram, I often post photos of my favorite cups of coffee (search the hashtag #CoffeeCorps and you’ll see posts about coffee from dedicated consumers from all over the world. We post daily). Sometimes, I’ll add a dollop of foam. Or a sprinkle of ginger here, or a dash of cinnamon there. I then feature the coffee in a photo with a background from whatever inspires me that day that I happen to see around my house. 

Panera Bread
Panera Bread Manager Sierra

The “I made it perfect” comment made me chuckle. A few weeks back, Sierra told me one of the photos I shared with her General Manager Stephanie had a cup of coffee that she had made personally. At the time, I said, “It was a perfect cup of coffee. Thank You”. Now, here she was holding on to the term and the sentiment. I grabbed my coffee today, then something overwhelming started to happen. It was so overwhelming that I immediately rushed out of the door and back to the car. What happened? Tears! That’s right, I had tears in my eyes and for numerous reasons that went well beyond a cup of coffee. 

For the past five years, I’ve visited Panera Bread in Quincy off and on. Initially, I was not overly impressed, but I continued to pop in because the food options are interesting. I noticed a change over the past two years in particular, though. Seemingly overnight, Panera Bread Quincy went from an average cafe that you’d find in any neighborhood to a must-visit destination. Panera now has bustling crowds of customers, diverse staff, and is consistently clean. The food and drinks were always accurate and delicious. The service was consistently provided with a genuine smile. General Manager Stephanie clearly had fostered a positive working environment for her team, which translated into a positive experience for the customers. They went from being another local business to being a neighbor.

Sometime in early 2020, Panera Bread began the My Panera Coffee Subscription program. You could have a cup of coffee every two hours, every day while they were open, all for just $8.99 plus tax per month. For a penny pincher like myself, this was a good deal. I subscribed initially to save some money, not realizing this would become an important footnote in my life for the year. Around the time the program started, COVID 19 hit!

Panera Bread
The Duke’s Coffee

Suddenly there were lockdowns all over the world, including in the Greater Boston area. Most businesses were closed in a traditional manner. If there was any work to be done, it would have to be done at home. Most restaurants were outright closed, but here in Massachusetts essentials like cafes remained open for takeout, and thank goodness for that. Suddenly my local Panera Bread became a daily visit and for good reason. I was able to get out of the house and check out what was going on around me for brief moments daily.

I was able to see the impact of fewer people being outside daily. Far more animals were running around the neighborhoods because they didn’t have to hide from us. I also paid attention to the customers I’d observed through the years that frequent Panera and the staff that works there. Logic told me if the same faces I’ve observed grabbing a cup of coffee and a pastry and the same faces preparing the goods are still present at Panera, then at least in that one place they had found a way to stay ahead of that no good “Rona Virus”…

Panera Bread
Panera Bread Quincy Crew

The team at Panera Quincy somehow managed to maintain their cafe cleanliness, quality customer service, and the food and drinks tasted the way they’ve tasted all along. The staff was wearing masks before it was a mandate. They were requesting customers to wear masks and offering masks to them before it was a mandate. Contactless pickup? They were doing that before all the cool kids were doing it. They created a makeshift driveway in their parking lot and expanded their delivery area all to continue to serve the community safely. But what about Sierra? 

Sierra was there early, stayed late, kept her mask on, was quick with a caring word, and positive vibe. She’d be outside in the drive-through rain or shine. She was dedicated and motivated to get the job done. It wasn’t long before she was invited into the Panera Management Training Program, and she did well enough to make it into the management team. Why is this so significant? Why does it matter that a hard worker was promoted? 

Sierra is a young woman of color. She belongs to one of the most vulnerable populations as it relates to COVID 19 affected individuals in America. Sierra showed up, day in and day out. She put in the work at a high level, despite the chaos going on in the world. This fact is pretty emotional to consider. During one of the most unstable economies in modern world history, Sierra made enough of an impression to not only keep her job but to get promoted. I cried today when she told me she “made it perfect”. At that moment, I was reminded of the way Sierra and her co-workers have managed to maintain during the most challenging times. They are proof that there is hope for each and every one of us. 

Whatever challenges we’ve endured during this Global Pandemic must not consume us to the point where we forget there is hope. It’s time to start shining a spotlight on that hope. Promote that hope. Sing that hope. SHOUT THAT HOPE. We must show up and do our best, like Sierra, Stephanie, and the entire Panera Quincy team, even in the face of mounting uncertainty. We must support one another and find ways to provide positivity as consistently as we can. That is the nourishment all of our souls could not only use but absolutely NEED. 

Let’s not just allow our lives to be made. Whatever happens, going forward, let’s give our all and at least try to ensure we’ve “Made It Perfect”! 

E. Duke Bennett is the host of the “Tell Us The Truth” Podcast & the “Duke Loves Rasslin” Podcast. Hit him up on Facebook or Twitter @DukeLovesRasslin & @TellUsTheTruth  for more pontification on #CoffeeCorps, Breaking down Systemic Racism and Singing The Praises of Inspirational People among us.

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