Panera Cares Cafes Offer Pay-What-You-Can Options for Food Insecure Americans


Donating unused bread and baked goods to the needy is a heartwarming gesture. But a corporation starting a nonprofit, pay-what-you-can version of their for-profit stores? Now, that’s something to make any cynic pause.

For years, Panera Bread has donated their day-old baked goods to homeless shelters, churches and charities. However, they’ve taken philanthropy to even higher standards by starting four pay-what-you-can restaurants across the country. Called Panera Cares cafés, these are restaurants where people order the same meals and baked goods for which Panera is so well-known, but pay what they can afford rather than retail prices

According to Panera Bread and Au Bon Pain founder Ron Shaich, he started these cafés to help the millions of Americans whom the government pegs as “food insecure.”

“What is food insecure? It’s what the USDA calls people who are starving. It’s a word that the USDA uses to sanitize the reality of life for way too many people in our country,” Shaich said in 2010 TEDx Talk.

According to Panera Cares, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that over 49 million U.S. citizens fall into this category. That includes 16 million children.

Shaich envisioned a different program than the typical soup kitchen — something entrepreneurial, something revolutionary. In the aforementioned TEDx Talk, Shaich explained how the visionary institution was born. After volunteering with his kids to deliver food to the elderly, he saw that traditional models were less than practical.

“I sat there as a business guy who runs a business and I said to myself, ‘This is so inefficient! It may make me feel good, but does it actually add any value? I would have been much smarter to have written a check,’” Shaich said in the talk.

He later was inspired when he heard about other pay-what-you-can restaurants around the country. After researching these other cafés, standing in lines at food kitchens to experience the depressing reality of what thousands of people live every day, he realized he wanted something different than just another café. He wanted a regular Panera where everyone could eat.

He saw that for it to be successful, for people to trust the café, they’d need to put Panera’s corporate name behind it. It was a huge risk, but something Shaich was determined to see through.

In 2010, Panera launched its first Panera Cares community café in Clayton, Missouri. The company later started other locations in Dearborn, Michigan, Portland, Oregon, Chicago, Illinois, and Boston, Massachusetts. So far the only location to close is the one in Chicago. The company said the space needed renovation, so they chose not to renew the lease.The rest remain open.

Despite the incredible financial risk involved, managers have found the Panera Cares cafés to be primarily self-sustaining. Right now, the stores bring in about 70 percent to 75 percent of what they would in a retail setting. In fact, Panera Cares has found that about 60 percent of those dining in the cafés pay the suggested donation, between 15 percent and 20 percent leave more and the remaining 15 to 20 percent leave less or nothing.

So how do Panera Cares cafés work? First, the regular Panera menu has a suggested donation, or the normal retail price, listed next to its items. Panera requests those who are able to meet the suggested donation to pay the full amount while those who cannot pay it can give what they can. Panera further asks that those who cannot meet the minimum limit their meals and beverages at the café to once a week so they can provide for the wider community.

Panera offers a program in which people can volunteer one hour a week for a food voucher. The company asks anyone who receives financial assistance meeting the cost of their meals to eat their food in the café so people can build community together.

The cafés are meant for far more than just food. The company launched job trainings programs for teens. In their Missouri location, they offer a 10- to 14-week training program that introduces at-risk youth to job skills as well as teaching life-skills like communication, accountability and budgeting. The Oregon and Michigan locations have similar programs.

Shaich says the full dream goes beyond making sure people go to bed with full bellies, it goes toward equipping people to live full lives. They hope to re-socialize young people who have been institutionalized.

“[The goal is to] not just feed those who cannot feed themselves, but also to use this as a training ground to basically train folks to enter the mainstream again,” Shaich said.

So how does the foundation choose where they’re going to build a Panera Cares? With the goal of sustainability in mind, they’ve chosen diverse areas where people from all economic backgrounds live.

“One of the questions we’re often asked is, ‘Why don’t you go to the poorest neighborhoods?’ Because we can’t sustain it if there are only poor folks,” Shaich said.

Shaich sees Panera Cares’ success as a wake-up call to Corporate America, too.

“Could we set an example for ourselves and maybe for others and say that corporations can do more than just give a check,” he said, “that they could step up and actually take responsibilities where they have core competence?”

To find out more about Panera Cares, click here.

Need to feel inspired? Check out Shaich’s TEDx Talk below.


Photo courtesy of Panera Bread

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