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.

Walmart in Arkansas, Mexico and My Hometown

A few days ago, after our daughter completed her last final exam at Washington University in St. Louis, we took a short vacation to the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Since the Ozarks are a short drive from St. Louis, we had talked about going there for the past four years, and this seemed like a good time to go.

In Arkansas

In part because of the countless Walmart stories that have been in the news recently (and must be keeping the company’s PR agents up at night), I decided to visit two specific places in northwest Arkansas that have nothing to do with the scenic mountains. The first, Sam Walton’s original Walton’s Five and Dime store in Bentonville (where Walmart has always been headquartered) recognizes the company’s earliest history. The second, the Walton Family Foundation’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, marks the company’s latest example of community involvement.

The company has had a long and less-than-stellar history of community involvement. So, its hard to think about Walmart as being a standup corporate citizen—a goal, I’m sure, of every PR and communications person working for the company, as well as its CEO and hoard of lobbyists in Washington and in cities and towns across the country.

In Mexico

Right now, the company’s reputation is being battered by news of its subsidiary in Mexico having “orchestrated a campaign of bribery to win market dominance” throughout that country, and by the company’s executives in Arkansas stopping an internal investigation, even after finding what its leading investigator said was “reasonable suspicion to believe that Mexican and USA laws have been violated,” according to The New York Times last week.

Now that the scandal has broken, Walmart’s communications department, we would like to think, is working long hours looking for a positive angle from which customers and other company advocates can view this PR mess, a mess described mildly as “a setback” by a university labor professor who has written a book on the company and who also has said, “Reputation is very important to Wal-Mart [sic].”

In the meantime, the company’s lobbyists are upping their game, making sure the company’s reputation remains on solid ground with what they consider their most important constituents: the U.S. Congress and the White House. In 2010, before the scandal became public, one of the company’s lobbyists boasted, according to The Times, that the company’s “reputation with elected officials is improved, not only in the U.S. but around the world.” He added that this popularity “makes it easier for us to stay out of the public limelight when we don’t want to be there.”

Unfortunately for Walmart’s corporate communications team, the limelight is aimed directly at the company today.

In My Hometown

But what really comes to mind when I visit Bentonville, and when I read about the company’s new PR situation, is the way Walmart has been, some people would say, responsible for the destruction of many small towns across America.

When I left my hometown many years ago, it had a population of 6,888—if I remember the number correctly, and I’m pretty sure I do. Now, much later, the town claims more residents. But it can do that, I believe, only because it has extended the city limits beyond their earlier boundaries.

It did so, it seems, to take in the new Walmart Supercenter built near what had been the western edge of town. That store is booming (aren’t they all?).

But downtown—where as a teenager I occasionally ate ice cream at the counter of a family-owned drugstore, and where I sometimes went to Benjamin’s antique store (should I really call it a dusty junk shop with more useless items than you could imagine would fit inside those four walls?)—is practically deserted.

The last time I was there, about all that remained from my youth were the offices of The Standard (it was The Daily Standard, when after school and on Sunday mornings, I used to throw the paper onto, or at least near, the porches of a hundred or so homes of eager readers) and a few doors away, Brunke’s hardware store, where even today the clerk can probably grab a fan belt for a ’47 Chevy off one of the shelves or from another shelf find the exact part needed to fix a broken pump responsible for bringing water up from the family’s well.

Now, long gone are the drugstore, Benjamin’s, and most of the other shops that thrived a few years ago.

More stores sit closed and empty downtown than are open for business. Most of the shoppers are at Walmart.