A caring experiment to help the hungry

By M.E. Malone

Walk into the 1-month-old Panera Cares community café in Center Plaza across from Boston City Hall and look around. Notice anything different? There are great scents, a line at the counter, laptop-tapping at a nearby table, pleasantries exchanged about the weather – all the usual sights and sounds of a weekday morning caffeine rush.Panera2

But unlike the Panera cafés you may have visited before, this one doesn’t have prices listed next to the items on the menu board. Instead, there are suggested contributions. And, if you choose, you don’t have to pay anything at all for your meal.

The Panera Bread Foundation, the charitable arm of the national chain known for its fresh breads and delicious sandwiches, has embarked on an interesting social project. The café operates on a pay-it-forward model: customers are asked to donate money for their meals if they can afford it. And, if they wish, contribute a little more to cover the costs of food for those who can’t pay full price for their meal.

“It’s gone extraordinarily well,” said Kate Antonacci, project manager of Panera Cares. Since the Boston café opened for business in mid-January, she said that patron donations have been close to 95% of the suggested contributions, which mirror the price of the food items in other Panera locations. “It’s been our strongest opening to date.”

The first Panera Cares store opened in Clayton, Missouri in 2010, followed by stores in Dearborn, Michigan; Portland, Oregon; and Chicago, Illinois. While the other locations were regular Panera stores converted to community cafés, the Boston location at 3 Center Plaza across from City Hall is the first one built entirely for the purpose of serving as a community café. According to Antonacci, this was in part because of the strong potential customer base they hoped to tap into at this location.

Panera3Panera, with deep roots in Boston dating back to the founding of Au Bon Pain in 1981, is careful to distinguish its mission from that of traditional soup kitchens, homeless shelters and food pantries. “This is not a permanent solution for people who are hungry. It is not where you go on a daily basis,” Antonucci notes. Instead, Panera wanted to see if it could use its corporate strengths to expand its existing charitable endeavors. “We’re in the business of feeding people. We asked ourselves: ‘Is there a way that we can take our core competencies…and apply that so we’re now making a direct difference in communities we’re serving?’”

Panera worked with the city and a number of local soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and food pantries before embarking on the project. “We want to understand the demographics of the neighborhood better,” she added. “We have a real clarity of purpose…and wanted to create awareness of what we were doing.”

Local coffee houses have dotted the American landscape for more than a century, and companies involved in food – from manufacturers to supermarkets to chef-owned restaurants – have been known to focus their charitable efforts on the hungry. The combination of the two has led to a growing interest in the establishment of small cafés in places where residents welcome an economically diverse array of neighbors.

A national organization, One World Everybody Eats, which originated in Salt Lake City, Utah, was one of the inspirations behind Panera Cares. Denise Cerrata, founder of the organization, said she is rooting for the success of the national chain.

She opened her own café in 2003 with a “pay what you can” model. A few years later, the S.A.M.E. (So All May Eat) café was opened in Denver, Colorado, based on the same principle. Soon community cafés devoted to helping ease food insecurity in their neighborhoods premiered in Texas, Washington, and North Carolina. There are currently 32 cafes in the One World Everybody Eats network.

“People get the concept,” Cerrata said. In her experience, most customers pay the suggested amount, but many choose to contribute more. “I think the people who pay it forward have had a similar experience at some point in the past; they had been hungry or had been a single parent.”

Cerreta said the community café model is mostly about building relationships. “They bring people together and help create a stronger sense of community. We just happen to be serving food,” she added.

Panera CEO, Ron Schaich, made it clear that the success of a corporate altruistic endeavor such as this one ultimately depends on the generosity of the neighborhood. “This community cafe is a gift to the community that was funded by Panera,” at a cost of about $1 million, Schaich said when the café opened in Boston on January 23. “Now that the site is open, it’s up to the community to sustain it. All consumers have to do is cover its direct operating costs…(It) will only work if the community supports it and one another.”

M.E. Malone is a first year M.S./M.P.H. student and co-editor of Friedman Sprout.

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