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For those who struggle to afford warm and nutritious food there are very few options other than visiting soup kitchens. In May 2010, however, Panera Bread, also known as the Saint Louis Bread Co. in Missouri, opened the first location of its philanthropic arm, Panera Cares.
Now with four locations – St Louis, MO, Dearborn, MI, Portland, OR, and Lakeview, IL – and a fifth to open in the near future, Panera Cares uses a pay-what-you-can model to provide food for those who are unable to afford it.
Colleen Kincaid, the General Manager of the Dearborn location, explains that, “The first thing we do is just help those who may need a hand up, by offering them a meal. If somebody has food insecurity, they don't have a refrigerator to go to, we're just here as a place that they can come and make sure that they get fed.”
Rather than prices on menus and cash registers, there are suggested donations and orange boxes to collect the donations.
Those who enter a Panera Cares would be forgiven for thinking themselves in a regular Panera Bread café. Kincaid explains that, “Usually people are very familiar with Panera Bread so when people ask that question, they are asking why it's not called Panera Bread.”
She goes on to say that, “It's just like Panera Bread but we're a nonprofit organization ... We mean to emulate them, and look like them, and provide the same product and the same quality, dignified service, and all of those things.”
To ensure people understand the donation-based model as soon as they arrive, Kincaid explains that, “We have somebody in place that we call an ambassador because people tend to not know quite what we are. That person's in place to explain what our mission is, to explain why we're different.”
One such ambassador, JeriAnn Patino, loves the experience, “That’s the biggest joy of the day, is when somebody comes in and goes ‘really? Now if I didn’t have any money, I could get a meal?’ and I say, ‘absolutely.’”
Panera Cares donates the food they have left at the end of the day to organizations who will give it to those who need it. “We do have bread stations, unlike the regular Panera Bread. They can just come in, drop your share, and grab a loaf, and we can slice it for you,” says Associate Trainer, Todd Williamson. The bread is provided by some of the Panera Breads in the area and ensures that nothing is wasted where it can safely be given to those in need.
Panera Cares is helping the community through more than simply providing food. The Panera Cares internship job training program began in St Louis and was recently instituted in the Dearborn location.
It’s a way to ensure that youth in the community get the chance to train for a job and learn ‘life lessons’, such as how best to spend and save their paychecks.
“It's really exciting to watch the youth that we're helping develop and become more confident people,” says Kincaid, “confident in their work skills but also just in general communication with people, seeing that their abilities can grow.”
Cynics of the program might say that people will take advantage of it, paying less than they are able to but this is far from the case. Most people will pay the full recommended donation, if not more than necessary.
Kincaid says, “Maybe somebody didn't pay for their food and, we've had plenty of customers come up behind them and say 'oh, I'll get it for you today’.” Others who might not be able to pay one day, will return after they have received their next pay check to pay for another person’s food.
Customers who appreciate knowing their money will go to help others also enjoy the atmosphere in the Panera Cares. While most people will go in and keep to themselves, others will be more open to speaking to each other.
Customer and former employee, Jonathan Mallard explains that there are more “people reaching out to others that might be in a different demographic or a different culture is more normal here and that leads to more interaction between the customers, more interaction between the staff and the customers.”
“What we're truly about is being able to offer a meal to people who … in their life may be a little bit overwhelmed with what's going on,” says Kincaid. Emotions can sometimes run high when people realize that they really can sit down to a warm, nutritious meal either by themselves or with their family.
Kincaid explains that there are “a lot of tears, a lot of people get very emotional when they realize they can come in and bring their kids, sit down together as a family and, you know, maybe that's something they haven't done in a really long time.”
For those working in the Panera Cares, it is just as rewarding to know that their daily work is to help provide food for those who cannot afford it. As Kincaid says, “It's just really rewarding to know that I went to work and I made a difference and the people I'm working with are committed and they're making a difference.”
The addresses for the four Panera Cares locations are:
Missouri: 10 South Central Ave., Clayton, MO 63015
Michigan: 22208 Michigan Avenue, Dearborn, MI 48124
Oregon: 4143 NE Halsey Street, Portland, OR 97232
Illinois: 616 W Diversey Pkwy, Chicago, IL 60657