It’s been three months since Dearborn’s Panera Café made its transition into the self-sustaining –the second of its kind in the nation supported by the chain’s nonprofit arm, the Panera Foundation. And by the numbers–as well as the feedback–things are going well.
As any Dearborn resident knows, lunchtime at Panera is hectic. Lines run 10 people deep, while finding an open table is hit or miss. Businesspeople shuffle in and out with bags stuffed full of sandwiches to feed their officemates. Local moms chat over coffee and salads. High schoolers on half days grab lunch after being dismissed.
But thrown into that mix since Panera Cares opened are individuals and families in need. They’re not so easy to spot–but that’s the idea.
“We don’t judge,” Lee Carmona, district director for Panera, said bluntly. “We want everyone to come in and feel comfortable.”
Thus the concept of the donation box was born, which sits in front of every register, though checkout machines have no bins for money. Instead, when orders are placed, an associate will give the diner their suggested donation amount. Whether they pay more, less or the exact amount is up to them.
The idea, Carmona said, isn’t to give away food, but to put faith in Panera customers that they will pay what they can afford.
“We believe that human beings, in general, are going to do the right thing,” Carmona said. “If someone can’t afford it, we can’t really make that judgment because we don’t know anybody’s situation. So rather than put pressure on our associates and people by having a space where you’re giving somebody a certain amount, the donation bins are there so everybody can do the right thing and share in the responsibility of keeping the café alive and moving in the right direction.”
So far, numbers have shown that about 20 percent pay more; 20 percent pay less; and 60 percent pay the suggested amount. It adds up to about 85 percent of the funds that a typical Panera earns.
The Panera Cares café had to combat the idea that “everything is free”–an issue that still comes up, Carmona said.
“We’re not trying to be a soup kitchen,” he said. “We’re trying to be a self-sustaining community café and really work with the community.”
That’s a big part of the reason Panera chose Dearborn as a Panera Cares destination. It’s one of only three in the country; the others are the original in Clayton, MO, and a café in Portland, OR, which just opened in January.
Dearborn, Carmona explained, is a perfect fit for Panera Cares because of its diverse economic population. Put simply, Dearborn is a mixture of relatively wealthy, middle-class and poor residents.
“We can’t be successful if we went into a neighborhood that was strictly in need,” said Carmona. “We needed diversity, and we needed a way to connect with people we believed would still enjoy the meal and would still be able to pay their fair share–and maybe even be able to give a little more.”
Moreover, the Panera Foundation hopes to support a diverse array of people in need, too, from Detroit’s homeless to out-of-work autoworkers who just need a hand up.
“We’re certainly comfortable if someone homeless comes in and we can feed them and give them something to take with them. That’s a great thing,” said Carmona. “But we also want to be that hand up to the people that are really struggling, and then we believe will turn around and give it to the next person when they get back on their feet.”
Signs of sustainability are promising, bolstered by the fact that other local Panera Cafés help out by donating their bread to be given away at Panera Cares. And, added Carmona, plans are in place to get volunteers involved in helping out.
Regular employees are keen to help, too, like Chelsea Maich, who has been with Panera as a company for 4 years.
Originally at the Allen Park location, Maich was approached about taking a position as a greeter for Panera Cares. In addition to spending some days making sandwiches and taking orders, she spends two or three days each week making sure customers know about how the self-sustaining café works.
After three months and greeting 50-100 customers per shift, Maich said she still has people who need an answer to the question, “What is Panera Cares?”
And though her job is with the same company, she said the work environment is different.
“The atmosphere is a lot more relaxed,” she said of the Dearborn café. “Knowing that we help so many people, it makes work more positive.”
The community’s reaction has been positive as well, said Carmona. His offices receive thank-you letters regularly from people who had a good, dignified meal at a reasonable price from Panera Cares.
And for those who can afford to give more, they leave with full stomachs and a sense that they helped people in need in their community in an incredibly easy, yet satisfying way.
"To leave a few extra bucks and see it at work right in front of you, people do become inclined to give a little more," Carmona said. "It’s a way to feel like you’re helping and you can see it right there.”