Her name was Joyce. An older woman, with crow's feet around her eyes and a penchant for floral print, whom I met this year. My drive thru customers at Brixton Square are highly unstable. Most of them are predictable, frustratingly so, but every day is a new adventure. No two cars in line are ever alike. From high-pitched whiny teenager girls who screech over the speaker and hurt my ears to gruff old men barking their orders in demanding sound bites, every time my radio beeps and I get a signal for a new car I have to take a breath in preparation. Oh, and then there are the fun clients who ask intelligent questions and say "thank you!" before zooming off. The car who waits twenty minutes in line for a simple iced tea. The affluent business lady who orders seventeen meals and taps her French nails impatiently on the window sill of her big white Cadillac while I count back change. Oh, the drive thru.
But then there was Joyce. One of those customers who never deviate in their order. Five days a week, every week, they don't care to try to anything from the extensive menu except for their habitual, familiar little zone. Half sierra turkey sandwhich, add on a pickle spear, and half a classic salad with extra dressing. Large ice tea, extra extra ice. Maybe a peanut butter cookie. No one orders pickle spears with half sandwhiches, and why the boring little classic salad had any interest compared to the Mediteranean salmon with almonds and tangerine organes, or the Thai chili salad with edemame and peanut drizzle, I couldn't fathom. After three days in a row, I had her order down as soon as I heard the first phrase. Half sierra with a pickle? Yupp. Gotcha.
We use loyalty cards at Panera to help establish customer connections. We swipe them along with the credit cards and dole out discounts and free treats. In exchange, we learn their first name and can track purchasing trends. But Joyce didn't have a card, didn't want one, and after a few days I was in my "make friends with the drive thru clients!" mode and asked her for her name. Joyce, she divulged hesitantly. I just smiled and pointed to my nametag. Noelle, trainer. It was a pleasure, and she was surprised when I told her that no one ordered what she did (and especially not every single day!)
When I take an order from a car at the screen outside, I am flying blind. They interrupt me, I try not to interrupt me, and we bump along until the car gets to the window and we can talk face-to-face in more natural conversations. I never know whether it's going to be whiny girl or grumpy old man or snappy business lady when I begin the order, "Hello, thank you for choosing Panera Bread at Brixton Square. This is Noelle, what can I get for you today?" But I have trained my voice to stay even and calm and not change regardless of the previous conversation with the car before. Our speakers are lame and I wouldn't recognize my own sister's voice ordering at the screen, so the only clue I have to regular customers is their order. And as soon as I hear "sierra turkey, pickle spear..." I can drop my calm, monotone, almost computer-generated smoothness for some real life.
"Joyce!" I interrupt. "How are you?!"
She laughs. "How did you know it was me?"
"Because you want a classic salad along with that, extra dressing, same as yesterday?" with a smile.
She laughs again. "That's right."
"Just pull on up, I've got the whole thing going for you already."
Forget about explaining which window, their total, and please come again. Informality is a nice change from formality.
Joyce finally opened up to chatting with me, and I deactivate the automatic window sensor so I can talk as I cash out her credit card. The other day, I asked her where she was going dressed so fine. Joyce just shook her head and said, "The hospital..."
I found out that day that she has a daughter in severe need of a kidney transplant, in the hospital due to a bad infection. That is how she spends her mornings. Then she comes by Panera Brixton Square, gets her usual order, and goes to another hospital where her twelve-year-old granddaughter is contained after suffering a stroke two weeks ago that left her completely paralyzed.
"This is my moment to breathe in between hospitals. It's tough to be strong for them all day." And Joyce took her ice tea with extra extra ice closed her eyes as she sipped it slowly, waiting for the food to be made.
I was speechless. Where would I get my solace between hospitals if that was my case? I would like to think I would find a friend at a drive thru of a cafe offering nutritious, comforting food. But my real solace would come from the peace of God that is being developed in mine own life at this difficult time. Was she a Christian? I didn't know.
But when I bagged her order and prepared to "send it out," I snatched up my pen and scribbled a note on the back of her receipt. Hopefully she would see it during the long day with her granddaughter. All it said what that I was praying for her, to keep her chin up, and my name.
She didn't check her bag as she drove away, confident that her order was correct. I didn't mind. I didn't expect much from it.
But she came back the very next day, and this time her husband was with her. I'd never seen him come with her before. I was taking orders at the other screen, and my colleague was operating the window, but Joyce requested me by name and so the other girl switched me spots so I could cash out Joyce and say hi.
"This is my husband!" she told me, smiling from the passenger seat. "He never comes here but I told him he had to come meet you in person. Your note meant so much to be yesterday, it changed my whole day! I've never seen anything like that. Thank you for caring."
And I felt tears in my eyes, and I shook his hand, and I got Joyce her order and made sure she had another note on the back of her receipt when I handed out the brown Panera bag. She peeked this time, and saw it, and beamed up at me as her husband put the truck in gear and drove off to the hospital. I smiled back, and my prayers went with them.
Because being at Panera has taught me to care for my customers as people, and that's the exact kind of lifestyle I think that God wants from Christians, to care about each other, and about the world, and people's needs, and to demonstrate a little bit of his love.
Please pray for me as I see Joyce from day to day and try to be an encouragement to her and a representation of God's goodness. I really love this dear lady and her family I've never met. Her name is Joyce, and it is my honor to be a part of her life for those five minutes at the Brixton Square drive thru.