Week 40: Panera Cares

Project: Panera Cares Cafe

Time Taken: 45 minutes


Lunch at Panera Cares Cafe, take two. And…. action!!


After a false start, I finally made it to Panera Cares Cafe between a rehearsal and a show this week, thanks to it’s close proximity to the theater.

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 2.28.32 PM(Image Courtesy Of RestaurantNews.com)


Panera Cares Cafe works is this: There are three levels of payment. One level where you pay the suggested donation rate, or more if you can afford it, to help sustain the cafe’s working costs. The next level is to donate what you feel is a fair share, if you’re struggling a food insecurity. Finally, if you have nothing to give monetarily, the cafe offers a plan where you can donate an hour of volunteering in exchange for a meal.

 2014-10-03 17.22.35How it all works!

I didn’t know any of this when I walked in for a quick bite to eat. From the outside, and even the front counter, it looks exactly like any other Panera. The main difference are the locked plastic donation boxes attached to the front of every cash register, and the signs explaining the different levels of giving you can choose. But if I hadn’t taken the time to read the signs, I may have thought it was just another Panera Cafe.

 2014-10-03 17.22.52Looks familiar, doesn’t it?

I talked to the sweet people that were working, who patiently explained how the system works, and ordered my food, just like any other Panera. I paid a little more more than the suggested donations for each item on the menu, to make sure to cover my costs, and sat down at a small, creme colored table surrounded by the same art that is at any other Panera.


The manager delivered my food and retrieved my vibrating disk that told me my food was ready (which actually is above and beyond service wise for a Panera- usually that disk-thing explodes in a buzz of noise and red led lights on the table and scares the crap out of me) and I enjoyed my sandwich and salad combo, just like any other Panera.


See the pattern here?

 2014-10-03 17.27.36Yummy. Just like any other Panera.

I guess I wasn’t expecting it to be so… similar. I guess I expected to be more aware of the people in the cafe who were clearly struggling to put food on their table daily. But to see a business man in a suit with a leather briefcase sitting at a table next to a woman wearing four layers of tattered clothing with a bag containing all of her earthly belongings was amazingly refreshing. No one seemed to blink an eye, no one look down their nose at anyone else, and the dream of everyone being able to eat with dignity was suddenly a reality all around me.


It’s so easy to forget, in our privileged, comfortable, safe existence how close we are to so many people in need. The idea of ‘food insecurity’ is so foreign to the way most of us think, yet Panera thought of a caring, clever way to address a serious need in the community by involving us- the unaware, the haves- into taking care of the have-nots. All by having a meal, and paying what we can, and hopefully a little bit more.


As I noshed away on my turkey sandwich goodness, and finished up my salad, I prepared to get up and go. But looking down at the plate that still had a little bit of food, I realized I still had a bread roll left. Now, usually, I am completely guilty of just throwing this ‘evil carb’ away… but in this cafe, in this new world view… there’s no way you would catch me wasting food in such a place! So I carefully wrapped it up in a napkin, looking forward to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich snack I turned it into after work that night.

2014-10-03 17.22.18-1 “We exist to feed each and every person who walks through our doors with dignity regards of their means”

– Panera Cares Statement of Purpose

So bravo to you, Panera. Thank you for shifting my world-view on food, for thinking of such a beautifully simple initiative, and for allowing others in the community help out in any way we can- even if it was just by paying a bit more for my lunch. It’s amazing how such a small experience can change you for the good.


Panera Cafe Exterior: http://www.restaurantnews.com/panera-bread-foundation-brings-panera-cares-community-cafe-to-boston/

All others: Me!


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