Serving a Side Order of Hope

Serving a Side Order of Hope

Panera Cares community cafes offer at-risk youth the opportunity to learn job skills and obtain long-term employment.

In 2010, Michael was a teenager living at Covenant House Missouri in St. Louis, an organization that helps at-risk youth. He was adrift, lacking much of a job history or even a clue for how to get a job, much less keep one. So Covenant House’s leadership recommended him for an innovative new internship program designed and administered by the Panera Bread Foundation’s nonprofit community cafes, Panera Cares®. Thanks to job-training internships at its various locations, Panera Cares helps young people in difficult circumstances learn the job and life skills they need to work in food service or other areas, giving them options for long-term employment—options that have the power to help lift them out of a cycle of poverty.

While the Panera Cares community cafes look very much like other Panera Bread® bakery-cafes, they allow customers to pay what they can for their meals. Those who can afford it pay the cost or a little more. The surplus subsidizes meals for those who can’t afford them and supports the job-training program, says Brooke Porter, general manager of the Panera Cares in Clayton.

But the Panera Cares team realized early on that as important as addressing hunger is, addressing the causes of hunger, including unemployment, is equally significant.  

Thus, Panera Cares began to partner with local community agencies, such as Covenant House and More than Words in Boston, to develop programs that would provide job skills and enable youth to get out of the cycle of hunger. Panera Cares operations vice president Marianne Graziadei says that this is a key component to the program’s success, as these agencies reinforce what the students learn during their internships and offer additional life-skills training to help them perform well in their jobs.

“It’s not a cake walk,” Brooke says of the job-training program. “Many of these young people have had very difficult backgrounds. But I always wanted to be a teacher, and this gives me an opportunity to teach them job skills that will benefit them now and in the future.”  

While the internships vary somewhat at each location, the basic components are typically the same. The underlying focus is that it’s one thing to give someone a job; it’s another to teach them how to perform on a job, keep a job, and manage the money they earn. Trainees begin by volunteering at a Panera Cares community cafe. Once they’re accepted into the program, they attend communications, hospitality, food safety, and budgeting classes. They begin working a number of shifts per week in the community cafe and are paired with mentors who help them learn the ropes. They are also evaluated weekly by the management team.

The programs run from five to eight weeks, depending on the store and the students. Upon completion, students may apply for jobs at a Panera Bread bakery-cafe or even a Panera Cares community cafe if there are openings. The goal is to get the students employment-ready.

Approximately 70 students have completed Panera Cares’s job-training program since it began. An average of 72 percent then take jobs with Panera Cares and other Panera Bread locations, while others have found employment elsewhere. Perhaps the most important thing interns get from the program is the confidence to believe they can do more than just survive: They can thrive. “We help map out a career path and show them what’s possible, providing the support and guidance needed to succeed in the job market. The majority of the youth we have in the programs have not had role models or mentors to guide them to be successful in maintaining a job,” Marianne says.

Former intern Michael will celebrate his fourth anniversary with Saint Louis Bread Co.® in May. Michael says he’s working on a career plan, and his dream is to become a radio personality.  “I’d never had a job before,” he says. “They taught me how to be a responsible employee. I learned so much, and we had a blast.”