Saturday, April 7, 2012

Panera Cares

Carolyn enjoying a Panera salad
Do you like Panera cafés?  In our travels, we have frequently stopped at Panera and have always appreciated the great breads, wholesome and tasty menu items, and relaxed, friendly environment. 

Panera is well known for its community involvement.  Many of you who work at food pantries or soup kitchens have used or distributed Panera bread.  Panera donates all of their bread at the end of the day to charities that then offer it to the people they feed.  In 2010, Panera donated about $100 million worth of bread through their Day-End Dough-Nation program.  At their cafés, they also collect and match cash donations, which are then given to non-profit food organizations through their Community Breadbox program.

But these efforts weren’t enough for Ron Shaich, the founder of Panera and now President of the Panera Bread Foundation.  He felt that these donations, while valuable, weren’t sufficient.  Inspired by a TV segment on the SAME (So All May Eat) restaurant in Denver, he decided that opening a non-profit, pay-what-you-can, restaurant was a good way to give directly to those in need, while making use of Panera’s core competencies of serving good, nutritionally dense food in a  warm, welcoming environment, treating customers with dignity, and building relationships in communities.

Panera's Kate Antonacci
To learn more about the Panera Cares Café concept, we caught up with Kate Antonacci, Ron Shaich’s associate, at the Panera Bread Foundation offices in Needham Heights, MA.  Kate has worked closely with Ron on planning the cafés since the early concept stages.  Kate told us that it took about a year to decide on a concept, plan the details of how it would work, find a site, and then open the first café in 2010.

How does the Panera Bread Foundation decide where to place a Panera Cares café?  All cafés need to be self-supporting, so they are located in areas with an economically diverse population – both people in need and people who will support the café by paying their fair share or a bit more.  Currently there are three Panera Cares Cafés:  Clayton, MO, Dearborn, MI, and Portland, OR.  Two more are expected to be announced soon. We stopped at the Dearborn Café, arriving and observing incognito, and then visited the original Café in Clayton, where we talked with manager Brooke Porter, greeter Jan Mauzy, and shift manager Josh Hopwood.

Panera Cares, Dearborn, MI
What makes Panera Cares Cafes different?  On the surface, they look just like any other Panera café.  They have the same color scheme, the same architectural features, the same menu and friendly atmosphere, and similar signs. 

It’s not until you look more closely that you see the differences.  The name is slightly different – Panera Cares Café, or in St. Louis, St. Louis Bread Co. Cares Café.  The motto is “we feed everyone with dignity regardless of their means.”  There are large signs explaining how the café operates, but in case you don’t see them, a greeter (or “ambassador”) explains that in a Panera Cares Café you are asked to pay your fair share.  The greeters get to know those who come regularly, learn about them in a friendly way, and make it clear that this is a community caring for all its members.  Jan said, “There’s like an inner-tube of love around this place.  When you walk in the door, hopefully you feel it.”  She keeps a journal of the stories she hears, and takes photos of some of the people to add to it.  She’s worked at the Café since the second day, and wouldn’t work anywhere else.

Brooke Porter (top),
Josh Hopwood, and Jan Mauzy
This is not a free restaurant.  The menu board displays suggested donation amounts, equivalent to the prices at regular Panera Cafés.  After you order your food, a cashier tells you the total suggested donation for your meal.  They make change if asked, and you put your donation into a bin in front of the cash register.  You can also use a credit card.   Those unable to pay for their meal are generally served one food item and one drink.  There are also tables of “baked fresh yesterday” bread and pastries, donated by other nearby Panera cafés, that you can take home, as well.  There’s a suggested price per loaf, and a bin on the table for your donation.
Although the cafés are non-profit, they are self-supporting.  They were regular Panera Cafés before transitioning to Panera Cares Cafés, and the equipment was donated from the corporation to the foundation.  Nevertheless, salaries, the ingredients for the food items, rent for the space, upkeep, and other expenses must be covered by customers’ donations.

Who pays?  We were told that about 60% of customers pay the amount asked.  About 20% pay more, and about 20% pay less.  The total amount collected averages between 75% and 80% of the amount asked.  So we asked Brooke how she covers the rest of the expenses.  One way is by getting some services either free or at a reduced price.  Perhaps the window washer washes the windows for free.  Perhaps that broken air conditioner is repaired at a lower cost.  Perhaps a nursery will donate flowers and soil for the planters.  Brooke is pretty resourceful!

Who eats at the Panera Cares Café?  The customers who come to the café usually look the same as they do at any Panera Café.  It’s not obvious who is food insecure, and the staff treats everyone the same.  They said that the well-dressed man with the briefcase who put $1 into the bin may have been unemployed for 6 months, is on his way to an interview and wants to feel comfortably fed in order to perform well.  The stylish woman may be living in her car.

Some who come to the Café ask if they can do something to pay for their meal.  Panera Cares makes a point of honoring these requests, and one of the greeters arranges times for volunteers to work.  They may sweep the patio, wipe off the tables, or fill the condiment trays.  After an hour of volunteer time, they get a voucher for a free meal, and more importantly, the dignity of paying their fair share.  If they continue to volunteer, show up when they’re expected, and do a good job, Brooke will write a letter of recommendation for them.  Several have been given good recommendations, and have gotten jobs.  Others fit in so well that they’ve been hired at the restaurant.

As if feeding the community weren’t enough, Panera also runs a 10-week internship program at the Clayton, MO, Café in partnership with the Covenant House in St. Louis, a program for homeless youth.  Young people ready for a job undergo a rigorous application process including filling out an application, writing an essay on why they’d like to work at the café, interviewing.  Usually three are chosen.  They work several shifts/week at the Café, where they are trained in each work station, as well as attend classes in work requirements (showing up on time in a clean uniform, calling when there are conflicts, how to manage a bank account, and other life skills).  The Café provides them with uniforms, bus passes, and food while they’re on the job, and grades them every day on attendance, appearance, teamwork, and personal and professional attributes.   The staff is very patient with them, as they are with any new employee.  Those who have graduated from the internship have all gotten jobs at other Panera Cafés.

St. Louis Bread Co. Community Cafe
How successful are the Panera Cares Cafés?  Brooke said that the Clayton café is busier than it was before the change to a Cares Café, so there is enough income to pay the bills.  But she explained that the employees actually measure their success by their impact on the people they serve. 

Josh told us a story about a man who was coming in once or twice a week, taking large quantities of whole grain bread, sometimes all that was available.   He was also taking pastries, and wasn’t leaving much money.   But sometimes he’d bring them candy or flowers.  They were concerned that he might be taking more than his share. Then they found out that he lived in a community of Russian and Ukrainian elders, many of whom didn’t speak English and didn’t drive.  He was bringing bread to the whole community. Josh said, “It taught me a lesson that you never know what’s going on with someone.”

Brooke told us of one young man who came to the café to volunteer.  She recognized him as someone who had come in during the summer, unkempt, into drugs and alcohol, living on the streets.  Previously, he’d been living with his mom and grandmother, but both had died, and other relatives had taken everything, leaving him homeless.  He’d decided he didn’t want to spend his 26th birthday that way, and had entered a recovery program.  He was now working full time, and ready to move into an apartment of his own.  He returned to the café to volunteer, grateful and wanting to pay for all the meals he’d gotten the summer before.  Brooke said, “That’s how I measure my success.  It’s not having all the dollars in the bank at the end of the day.” 

Panera Cares Cafés won’t totally solve the issue of food insecurity, but they have shown us a way for a community to feed all its members with dignity and equality. 

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful to know there such caring people.