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Panera Cares Café: A Successful Test Of Humanity

Everyone’s really out to make a difference and tackle the country’s hunger issue.

If you would remember, we featured here Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen, the singer’s pay-what-you-can restaurant in Redbank, New Jersey. Now we shall talk about how Panera Bread Foundation’s community café successfully reached another milestone of operations and is laying out plans to open more locations.

The idea was clear: the Panera Cares Café wants an honest and straightforward connection to people who are in need of food assistance. Panera has been donating as much as $150 million worth of baked goods to several charity groups through their other projects, and they wanted a community café that would uplift and inspire people. They would not put prices in the menus. Instead, they would only list recommended donations which can be dropped into contribution boxes strategically placed at the café’s counter.

The diners are given the option to pay the actual recommended amount, or pay more. They’re also allowed to pay less—or nothing at all, if they really cannot afford to pay for it. One thing for sure is that regardless of how much the diner pays, the chefs of Panera Cares Café, in their outstanding chefs clothing, would always have a ready meal for anyone who would go there to dine.

During its early stages, there had been some misgivings about the plan, though—would the café be able to support itself? Its operations would depend on how much are the customers willing to give, and speculations arose–will diners have the mind to do the proper thing, or will they take advantage of what is given to them?

Panera Bread Foundation president Ron Shaich says that the concept, in a lot of ways, “is a test of people’s humanity. You wouldn’t really know if the diners would reach out to lend a hand, or take full advantage of the situation.”

The doubts were laid to rest now that the third of its three restaurants (the Dearborn, Michigan location) has reached its first anniversary. In fact, they are currently laying out plans to expand operations, hoping to open more units in the future. Their estimate is that around 20% of the café’s diners give in excess of the recommended donation, 60% donate the proposed amount, and only about 20% give less than the expected, or nothing at all. This answers the question—diners are indeed up to doing the right thing. And although the restaurants are just reaching breakeven, enough to pay the operational overhead expenses (which includes the wages of servers and chefs in cool chefs clothing), expectations are in place that pretty soon people will understand exactly what the community café is all about, and will soon be willing to give more.

Now, they’re hoping to add more to their Missouri, Michigan and Oregon cafes, joining the others in helping out make a difference: Café 180 in Englewood, California; Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, New Jersey, Table Grace in Omaha, Nebraska and the many pay-what-you-can community cafés ran by the One World Everybody Eats Foundation.