That was my tweet the other day, prompting a short flurry of conversation. The initial suggestions were bakery and deli, but I rejected these. Panera, the Atlanta Bakery and the Corner Bakery (and McAllister’s, which was shortly added to the list) might be considered a subset of delicatessens and bakeries, but they share a quality between them that other delis and bakeries don’t have. I suggested several names for this type of place–gourmet deli, hipster deli, pretentious deli–before Diane combined deli and bakery to get the title of this post.

But what is that quality that these four places have in common? Is it being gourmet? Is it being upscale? They’re definitely not actually gourmet, though I suppose they qualify as “gourmet” in the sense that marketing has taught us to use it nowadays. I guess upscale is as good a word to use as any, but I still question whether or not “upscale” has any actual meaning. How would we define upscale?

Let’s broaden our scope a little, to include other upscale places. Starbucks. Barnes and Noble. Borders. What do all these places have in common with the delkeries? They’ve all been constructed over the past twenty years to be places where the customers are encouraged to spend their free time.

There’s no reason to spend longer than twenty minutes in a sandwich shop or coffee shop–you stand in line, you place your order, then you either eat/drink and leave or take your food/drink with you. A bookshop might require slightly longer–browsing through the books, after all–but browsing should really be done standing in front of the shelves, not sitting in a cafe with a latte and a stack of books you haven’t paid for sitting on the table.

But the corporate offices want you to stay long enough that you end up spending more of your money, in bits and pieces over several hours. (Though speaking as a former Barnes & Noble employee, the staff generally don’t want you sitting around, getting underfoot, making more work for them without really spending enough to justify it.)

So they have crafted their stores with leather upholstery, non-intrusive lighting, ambient music and pretentiously-named, slightly overpriced food. And we walk in and look at what’s on offer in the bakery case and we feel refined, and cultured, and in comfort, and for a little while we feel slightly above our actual station as members of the Great American Middle Class. So we settle into our chairs with our mocha and our cranmelon scone and we chat with friends or do our homework or work our way through a stack of magazines we haven’t paid for.

I love the Corner Bakery, and I love Barnes & Noble, and while I don’t love Starbucks (because I can’t stand coffee), I was overjoyed when the Starbucks adjoining the B&N where I used to work started serving “gourmet” sausage McMuffins, because they were delicious. So I’m just as much a part of the phenomenon as everyone else–but it’s still a phenomenon I find fascinating. And something, I think, that’s really only come to be in the past two decades.


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