Local Dispatch: Memo from a Panera booth

My new office (while working to acquire another one)

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Pittsburgh is the kind of town where "working from home" could mean a shop in the garage, an office in a spare bedroom or a concrete storage building out back. But with the ranks of the jobless swelling, a new population of workers need to find space for their new job: finding the next one.

In March I joined the more than 91,000 people who were unemployed in Allegheny County. While that 7.5 percent rate was lower than the national average of 8.6 percent at the time, it still meant that I and a lot of other folks were out of a place to go every morning.

It made me wonder: Just where all of us unemployed go every day?

In my working days, I had the big corner office with a white board for notes, a table for meetings and the big wraparound table with file drawers, two computer screens and even an old-fashioned In and Out box for my administrative assistant.

One of my first tasks after leaving my job was to find a new office space. My wife and I went about rearranging our house. She had the spare bedroom for her office so we modified our living room, adding a desk and file cabinet. Having never worked full-time from my house, I bounced around at first, moving from room to room, working for stretches at the dining room table, sitting on the couch with laptop in lap, hanging out in the bedroom and going out on the deck as the weather started to warm up.

I discovered that the challenge about working from my house is that it is my home. I quickly realized that for me, home is a refuge from work. It is the place where I hang with family, watch the Pens and Steelers, and play with my dog. In short, a place where I recharge my batteries.

So it didn't take me long to have workplace envy. I knew I would need a place besides my house to use as an office on a regular basis. Being between jobs, I couldn't justify spending money on an executive suite, so I found the next best thing:

My booth at Panera.

I'd frequented Panera Bread for many years. I've often gotten together with friends and colleagues over a cup of coffee or a salad lunch. I've enjoyed the food and cookies, but for all the times I'd been there, I have to admit that I'd never noticed the culture of serious business regulars.

And I could never have imagined that I would become a member of that working cadre.

It's easy to become captivated by the Panera atmosphere when you have the freedom to create your own schedule. They're conveniently located (my home office is at the Waterworks but I frequent satellite locations in Oakland, Squirrel Hill and at the Galleria), offer unlimited coffee and soft drinks (I sometime recycle my coffee cup for iced tea) and they provide small free samples of pastry and bread during the morning and lunchtime rush (personal favorite: asiago cheese).

Most important, they offer me worldwide connection with their free Wi-Fi. This, along with my cell phone, provides everything necessary to do my work. Since I'm mapping out my health care and executive coaching consulting practice, I can do my research, respond to e-mails, draft proposals, work on PowerPoint presentations and check out the Web -- all from the comfort and privacy of my own office booth.

In some ways, I may be more productive at Panera then at my previous job. No interruptions from my staff and I don't need to go out for a coffee break.

My compatriots, my colleagues, are far and away the most interesting part of the Panera office experience. We regulars come to recognize one another.

Most of us arrive by 8 a.m., although some are early risers and arrive by 7. While there may be a little competition over who gets a booth with the power outlet, it's not unusual to see someone come in with a power strip so we can all share another common connection.

We become a strange support system. We watch one another's computers when we go up to the counter for an order or take a trip to the restroom. Overhearing a marketing or interview call, someone might gesture a thumbs up or offer a compliment ("Good call"). The other day, one my colleagues left his cell phone on the table and he was sure glad to see I picked it up for him and had it ready when he returned 30 minutes later.

At Panera, I get to refresh my location every day, giving me a different perspective on my newly evolving world. Sometimes I choose a booth in the back (when I need to focus), sometimes I sit at a table toward the front. When I need to read, one of the leather chairs becomes my favorite spot.

My professional Panera workday usually ends by noon. There's definitely a need to clear out before the lunch crowd. By then, I've gotten quite a bit done and am ready to visit some prospective customers.

I thank the manager, hoping I didn't scare off any potential recreational customers. Besides, I do order a bagel with cream cheese.

Now I just have to make sure I reserve the meeting room. I've got some big meetings coming up.

Richard Citrin lives in O'Hara ( richardcitrin@gmail.com ). Contact Portfolio at 412-263-1915 or page2@post-gazette.com .

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