Panera Cares Proves People Care

Ronald Shaich is the founder of Panera Bread, the best performing restaurant stock when measured over the last decade. But that isn’t enough for Shaich, especially when 1 in 6 Americans live in “food insecure” homes. A few years ago, he was inspired when he saw a news report that covered Same Café in Colorado, an establishment that fed everyone at whatever price he or she could pay. Shaich began to study other models and became interested in “community cafés,” which were part of a powerful movement but the facilities were small and often operating out of the back of a church.

When Shaich began conceptualizing the Panera Cares Community Café – a pay-what-you-can model – he was determined to replicate the full Panera Bread experience. As the CEO of a public company, he had to fight an uphill battle with his shareholders to prove that it made business sense. Essentially it would be the same costs as his other stores but the net income was much harder to determine. To navigate this, they decided to create the Panera Foundation to cover the café’s expenses; Panera corporate’s gift to the foundation was the physical asset of the café. The two would operate as separate entities with full transparency. But how would the café actually work?

Shaich determined that the cafés had to be located in diverse communities, ones with both people who could afford to pay the suggested price and those who couldn’t. The idea is to empower people in communities to take care of each other. The cafés employ people on the lower end of the economic spectrum, which makes them more dedicated to the business, and the cafés even have a job-training program for at-risk youth. Instead of cashiers, payment is submitted in donation boxes in order to protect patrons’ dignity, something that proved incredibly important. People don’t want something for nothing and many lower income customers wanted to volunteer in order to get food.

So the big question is: does it work? One year after the first café opened in Clayton, MO, Shaich was proud to tell the audience at Sustainable Brands ’11 a resounding YES. About 20% of customers leave more money than the suggested donation with no pressure, and 20% pay less. There is now a café in Dearborn, MI and a third was recently opened in Portland, Oregon. Shaich hopes to open a new café each quarter.

Through this endeavor, Shaich has proven that humanity is good – that when you trust in people, they won’t disappoint. He claims that Panera’s transparency is the foundation for this trust. With such an important and inspiring message, it’s surprising that Shaich doesn’t promote this story on the company’s website and a Google search only reveals mention of it from the company through press releases.

During a panel at the conference, Shaich revealed that he struggles with publicizing doing good because then it seems like you only did it for the PR buzz. In the case of Panera Cares Community Cafés, I urge Shaich to rethink this. While I understand his predicament, his story is too important not to share as other companies need to learn from his innovative approach to integrated philanthropy.


Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.

Ali Hart

Ali Hart is a media strategist and content producer helping change agents harness the power of humor. From developing creative TV and web concepts to managing comedians to strategizing grassroots campaigns, she has devoted herself to exploring which messages and messengers inspire behavior change for good. Ali holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, where she currently laughs.

7 responses

  1. I am reading this after being a first time customer at the Dearborn MI cafe’. I had not heard of Paneras venture so visiting the location uninformed you can imagine my suprise! Bravo to Shaich for believing in America and the giving spirit I KNOW still exists. Much continued success!

  2. I have been a huge fan of Panera Bread because they donate their unsold goods at the end of the day to organizations who can pass on the blessing. Our church picks up once a week and delivers the goods to a shelter for abused women and children in Houston. Panera’s spirit is generous!

    1. We use to be able to do the same here in the Portland, OR area. But since they opened a Panera Cares last January, all unsold (day-old) baked goods from their regular local stores go to their Panera Cares Cafe where they use it in over the counter sandwiches and sell loaves and bags of other baked goods for “suggested donation” of $2.50 to $3.50 each.

      We, as a non-profit receiving it from Paneras, were not allowed to do the “reselling/ask for donations” bit, but their non-profit can? How’s that a good thing?

      1. Just to correct on this comment, Panera Cares cafes make all there “over the counter sandwiches” with freshly baked breads. The breads from the previous day are sold in the bakery and at the grab-n-go stations. And whatever is left over at the end of the night, Panera cares, just like panera bread, Donates all of the left over breads to churches, food pantries, food shelters, etc… : )

  3. PaneraCares is a misnomer. The management in this place treats low
    income people that cannot pay the full price but can only donate,
    despicably. This place is in the business of making profit; not caring
    as the name denotes, about people that cannot pay the full price. It is
    surprising that this place is actually a non-profit org !
    I was given
    a lecture to and treated very badly by the manager, Andrew, and lied to
    by the staff because I could only donate and could not pay the full
    price. (I have been unemployed for over 3 years and don’t any property
    or assets. I am not an alcoholic, I don’t do drugs and I am always neat
    and clean ). The manager told me that my donation was not sustainable
    for the cafe ! Donations are voluntary and there are no set
    “rates/prices” as to how much one should donate. What gives a person or a
    corporation the right to mistreat you, for what they perceive your
    donation to be not enough for them ? When I asked the manager how much
    did he want me to donate, he could not give me an answer. I don’t know
    what they want except that maybe they just don’t want people that cannot
    pay the full price or more to come in ?
    The excuse for their
    mistreatment is that people abuse their system. Just because some other
    person might be abusing you, why are you mistreating me when I have not
    abused ?
    I was simply wanting to go in, order some food, make my
    donation, get my food and leave. Instead I felt bullied and humiliated
    at this place on that day.

    When I initially emailed and left a
    phone msg, for the manager , Georgia Wagner, I did not get any response.
    I had to contact corporate several times. Only then did Georgia
    Wagner, respond. After the last contact with her, I was told I would
    hear back from her in a day or two and that was more than a month ago. I
    have yet to hear back . I am pretty sure that I will never hear back
    from her. Am I surprised ? No.
    For the good-hearted people who
    patronize this place, please know that PaneraCares in Portland, Oregon,
    mistreats part of the population that they are supposed to be serving.
    And for the poor people, PaneraCare doesn’t want you in their cafe. Save your dignity and don’t go there.
    PaneraCares, if you can’t treat donors with dignity, do humanity a
    favor and get out of the non-profit business. If you can’t stand the
    heat, get out of the kitchen.

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