Panera Cares—Four Years Later

Panera Cares—Four Years Later

Four years ago, the Panera Bread Foundation opened its first nonprofit community cafe with a simple goal: feeding those in need with dignity. Now five locations strong, the program is taking a bite out of food insecurity.

A September 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that at some point in 2012, 14.5 percent of American households experienced food insecurity. What does that mean? Millions of families lack enough food for all the household’s members to lead active, healthy lives.

That problem was the catalyst for the first Panera Cares® community cafe, which opened its doors in Clayton, Missouri, in May 2010 under the name St. Louis Bread Co. CaresTM. The mission is simple: so all may eat with dignity. The community cafe allows patrons to pay what they can. Some contribute the cost of their meal or more as a way to help those who come in and contribute less or nothing. Guests may also volunteer at the community cafe in exchange for a meal.

Panera Cares also operates in Boston, Massachusetts. Though the community cafes look and feel much like the regular, for-profit Panera Bread® bakery-cafes, there are some key differences. First, Panera Cares locations operate as nonprofits. There are also ambassadors on hand to explain the concept to guests as they enter. Patrons place money for their purchases in a bin or employees swipe their credit cards, says Panera Cares operations vice president Marianne Graziadei.

The community cafes help in three key ways:

First, they provide a resource for those who are in need of a meal.

Second, it’s a rare opportunity to “see exactly how your money makes a difference,” says Boston Panera Cares general manager, Katy Wachholz. And, sometimes, the people who receive help are more than happy to pay it back—and then some. Katy recalls a local hospital employee who had to pay an unexpected large bill. She arrived at the community cafe with no money for food until her next paycheck. The staff fed her, and after her next payday, she returned with a $20 donation.

Third, Panera Cares community cafes provide the opportunity for some customers to learn job skills. Through a job immersion program that lasts five to eight weeks, students learn job skills. The program also reinforces life skills, such as budgeting, communication, and accountability. Panera Cares partners with other local agencies, such as Covenant House Missouri in St. Louis and More than Words in Boston, to identify participants and reinforce what participants learn in the community cafes.

Marianne emphasizes that Panera Cares is not about providing free meals. Rather, Panera Cares is about shared responsibility and engaging the community in a broader effort to help those who are struggling with hunger. Those who need regular food assistance are often referred to local food pantries or other feeding agencies. They can also arrange to volunteer for an occasional meal. Each community cafe has a list of local food and job banks, as well as places where patrons can obtain clothing and shelter.

For now, there are no new Panera Cares community cafes planned. Instead, the focus is on fine-tuning the model and making improvements to the current locations. Marianne says key areas of focus include determining how managers can better serve their communities and increasing the effectiveness of the job-training program. “When I visit these community cafes, I see that we’re really making a difference. I’m proud of our managers and proud of our program,” Marianne says.