Food and Dignity for the Hungry

Creating good community relations and great branding is an ongoing effort for most companies. Some never succeed at it. Some are moderately successful. Others like Panera Bread Company get it right because they have a great product and are doing good things for the community, things that, in turn, shine a warm light on the company itself.

Panera Bread today opened its first pay-what-you-can cafe in Chicago. This outlet has long been a regular Panera store, and was, in fact, where company founder, chairman and co-CEO Ron Shaich personally wrote the company’s mission statement years ago. But today it becomes a Panera Cares community cafe, where the Lakeview area residents can pay normal prices for their meals if they feel like it or pay something extra if they wish so those who have little or no money (and who may even be living on the street) can get their meals free.

One of the goals of this program, the company has said, is to “ensure that everyone who needs a meal gets one. People are encouraged to take what they need and donate their fair share. There are no prices or cash registers, only suggested donation levels and donation bins.”

Beyond providing free meals and addressing the problem of hunger in the United States, the idea behind the community cafe concept is to improve the dining experience for those who need a little help, an experience nothing like that of a soup kitchen since the cafe has the exact Panera environment and food found at all its other outlets. The experience, Shaich has said, provides “dignity to all—those who can afford it, those who need a hand up, and everyone in between.”

The new location and the three existing community cafes—in Clayton, Mo.; in Dearborn, Mich.; and Portland, Ore.—differ from the other 1,500-plus outlets of this restaurant chain only in that they are now run by the Panera Bread Foundation, a non-profit organization.

Any profit earned by the new Chicago community cafe will—like that already being made by all three of the other outlets—go to organizations that train at-risk youth, youth who are offered jobs by Panera after they’re trained.

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