THE SMILING FACE BEHIND THE COUNTER

Any regular at ABP knows him, talks to him, likes him, gets advice from him. Wernher P., the man with the mysterious name is

His name tag is as inviting as he is. "How are you today?" asks the man whose tag curiously reads, 'Wernher P.' And for about the thousandth time, his thick, French/Creole accent betraying his Haitian heritage, he inquires, "What would you like?"

Dark eyebrows arched, large eyes twinkling with amused interest, Wernher P.'s face breaks out into a grin.

"For here or to go?"

Only One 'Wernher P.'

In more than four years behind the counter at Au Bon Pain (ABP), Harvard Square's busiest cafe, Wernher P. has seen all kinds.

Some are in and out so fast they hardly have a chance to catch their breaths. Others linger for hours, even days, with no place to go, content just to sit and watch the steady stream of people.

Yet, while there are thousands of faces at ABP, there's only one Wernher P. Indeed, over the years, Wernher has garnered quite a reputation, becoming something of a local pop-legend in his own right.

A Winning Personality

Somehow, despite the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that always seem to fill and overfill the cafe, despite the lines of customers in front of his counter that move so fast but never seem to grow any shorter, despite the time constraints and the noise and the pressure of standing on his feet for eight straight hours each day, Wernher P. manages to save a nice word for everybody.

"I haven't seen you for a long time," he smiles. "How are things?"

And Wernher really wants to know.

"He's extremely friendly," says Kathy R. Fazzalaro, a long-time customer. "Every morning I come in here for a cup of coffee and I'm always greeted with, 'Hello ladee, how are you today?'" she says, laughing, as she imitates the distinctive inflection of Wernher P.

"He's the fastest behind the counter, too," says Diane Jellis, a Harvard reunions official.

And Wernher's over-the-counter conversations go beyond simple small-talk. "He gives me inspirational reading now and then. And every day he asks me what chapter I'm on," Jellis says.

"He's just friendly," says Steve B. Singer, a customer for several years. "He looks friendly, he acts friendly. He's got the real thing."

A Commitment to Work and Faith

What is it that so endears Wernher P. to so many? His friends credit his hard work, outgoing personality and religious devotion.

"The way you see him now? He's like that all day long," says J. Wilner Loiseau, who has known Wernher since his early days in Port-au-Prince.

"Since I know him, he talks a lot," Loiseau says. "Once he starts talking, it's difficult to stop him."

Wernher laughs at the characterization, but he admits it is true. He credits his missionary work as a devout Jehovah's Witness with developing his public speaking skills.

"I got in the habit of talking to people...since I've been that high," Wernher P. says, gesturing to an imaginary point about two feet above ABP's tile floor.

"I keep doing it, knocking on people's doors...trying to teach them the good news about the future," he says of his religious work.

Wernher says it is his unfaltering belief in such a future--a time when the world will be at peace and everyone will be happy--that allows him to greet each day cheerfully.

"Those promises don't depend on me and you," he says, "so I'm real optimistic about the future."

Keeping the Faith

Wernher says his devotion comes from his having much to be thankful for. His faith has saved him from disaster more than a few times, he says.

"I'm 80 percent sure that if I weren't a Jehovah's Witness, I might be dead now," he says, explaining, "I've stayed away from drugs, politics and bad companionships."

Seems like a simple formula for a good life. But it hasn't always been easy for Wernher P.

A Hard Road

Wernher, 32, knows what it is like to struggle.

The son of a math and physics teacher, Wernher came to the United States, and Cambridge, on a student visa in the winter of 1981.

After spending three months learning English at Northeastern University, he was admitted to study electronics at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Roxbury. Even though he had been exposed to the best Haitian schools offered, Wernher found American education different, and more difficult.

Books and studying did not bother him. But America's wealth of technology and advanced electronic equipment was overwhelming.

"School was hard," he remembers. "In my country, we don't have laboratories."

Still, Wernher caught on quickly, specializing in work with transistors, and earned his degree in electronics in 1985.

Diploma in hand, Wernher P. went looking for a job. It was then that he ran into a stone wall. No one in New England was hiring in the field of electronics.

That is when Wernher discovered Au Bon Pain.

At just over $7 per hour, working behind the counter at the ABP in Harvard Square seemed like a good temporary job. Granted, it offered no health insurance, no benefits, no vacations. But it was a job, and Wernher P. needed the money.

Five years later (minus a brief stint in 1986-87 working for another fast food chain), Wernher P. is still there, now with his brother, Berkeley. The two share an apartment in Chelsea.

In July, the hourly wage dropped by more than a dollar.

"With regard to money, it's depressing," he says. "I know I'm capable of doing better than that. But, as the saying goes, the one who wins the best race isn't always the best." And in characteristic fashion, he laughs.

Wernher P. does not blame anyone for his hardships. "Basically, the people here are great," he says of his co-workers and supervisors at Au Bon Pain. "But the big shots? I won't say they don't care, but they don't encourage you too much."

A Matter of Self-Respect

Despite all, Wernher is working harder than ever.

"It's a matter of self-respect," he says. "You've got a job to do, you do your best."

In his spare time, which amounts to little between work and church, Wernher is looking for a better job. His brother has found one, and will soon be leaving ABP. But Wernher says the electronics field is unlikely to offer him any opportunities.

"The recession situation makes things worse," he explains. He adds that if he does find work in his specialty, he will have a lot of catching up to do.

"I do believe that I forget a lot of things," says Wernher. "But since I've got my books, I do believe I could pick it up."

If electronics has no openings, Wernher says he might look into social work.

"If I should get involved in that field, I know I'll do good," he says.

What about moving up at ABP?

"Chief supervisor is a possibility," he says. "But it's not an advantage. It doesn't have a stable schedule, and that's not possible as a Jehovah's Witness."

Wernher's customers, many of whom have become his friends, think he should be promoted.

"This guy's the best employee they've got," says Bill J. O'Connor. "He should be president of the company."

But Wernher P. says he's happy doing what he's doing--working hard, meeting people and spreading his faith.

"I happen to be known by a lot of people around here," he says.

One question remains, however. Does anyone know what the 'P.' stands for?

That's easy. "Prudent," laughs Wernher P. "I think the Bible helped me in that category."

'It's a matter of self-respect. You've got a job to do, you do your best.