FOUR YEARS AFTER the Panera Cares community café opened at Center Plaza in Boston, it’s still in business. But the restaurant’s unorthodox approach to addressing hunger isn’t working out exactly as planned.
The concept is simple. Customers walk into the café, pick their food, and pay whatever they can afford. The hope is that enough customers will pay more than the advertised price to offset the cost of serving those who pay less.
In the beginning, the community café did very well, ringing in a little over 100 percent of its retail costs daily. But the café’s novelty started to wane after a few months and the collection rate took a dip. Today, roughly two-thirds of daily customers choose to pay at or above retail price, but those additional contributions are no longer enough. According to Bob Zykan, the café’s general manager, the outlet now recovers only 85 to 95 percent of its retail costs.
The café functions under both the non-profit Panera Bread Foundation and the for-profit parent corporation Panera, LLC, with the latter taking care of the café’s business essentials, such as staff training, maintaining corporate standards, and kitchen support. Thanks to subsidies from its corporate parent, the Panera Cares community café is able to cover its retail shortfall and additional expenses, such as its job-training internship and volunteer program.
The financial support Panera Cares receives from its parent company, Zykan said, is important to maintain the brand’s principle of “meals with dignity,” offering the same standard of quality and service to Panera Cares customers as any other regular Panera store.
“We are not sustainable by the traditional sense of we collect everything we need to provide,” Zykan said. “Panera subsidizes this program so we can provide those meals for everybody. We don’t cut any corners.”
Despite its flexible payment method, the café still has suggested guidelines to prevent people from abusing the pay-what-you-can setup. For example, customers who can’t afford to pay full price are urged to take a meal no more than once a week, though orders of bread and coffee appear to be allowed more often. Those customers are also encouraged to volunteer one hour a week at the store.
Debbie Clarke, the café’s volunteer coordinator, admits there are some who abuse the program, and it’s not just low-income folks. “I do get mad when I see people come in day after day and they just don’t pay their fair share,” says Clarke, recalling two men dressed in business attire that put in $1 for their meals. When Clarke confronted the men, they told her she was being rude.
Clarke said staffers used to be more diligent enforcing guidelines, but management has advised restraint. “Some people can get really nasty because they just feel entitled,” she says.
In Massachusetts, there are a handful of independent community cafes that serve meals under a pay-what-you-can system similar to Panera Cares, including the Stone Soup Café in Greenfield and All Are Welcome Community Kitchen in Middleboro. But because of the costs involved in maintaining these types of establishments, they are more akin to soup kitchens. They are largely dependent on donations and volunteers, open for limited hours (some only once a week), and serve a small variety of meals.
By comparison, the Panera Cares community café is open Monday through Friday with the same selection of items available at any of Panera’s other 2,000 regular stores across the country. The café employs 20 full-time staffers, and draws on the operations system of the parent company, which recently was bought by a European company for $7.5 billion.
The Boston branch of the Panera Cares community cafés is one of the two specialized cafés Panera has opened since 2010 that are still active. The other cafés, located in Portland, OR, Dearborn, MI, and Chicago, IL, have since closed.
According to Ken Hede, a regular customer at the Boston outlet, the café’s welcoming environment is appreciated. “This place helps people who aren’t financially stable to have a full meal and keep enjoying life,” says Hede, who earns his living entertaining tourists with his bucket-drumming skills near Faneuil Hall and comes in to the café once every few weeks. “It’s a really good atmosphere.”
On his recent visit to the café, Hede paid $8 for a meal worth more than $14: a chipotle chicken with avocado sandwich ($9.39), a Danish pastry ($2.79) and coffee ($2.29).
Besides its main mission of providing food for those in need, the Panera Cares community café runs a job training internship with Goodwill focused on training adults with learning disabilities. Interns go through 15 weeks of training to acquire both soft and hard-skills for the restaurant industry, learning about food security, professionalism, and hospitality. The training program has helped foster a welcoming and accepting environment at the café.
Jane Moscow, a regular who works at the nearby Suffolk County courthouse, enjoys lunches at the café with her daughter.
“She feels comfortable,” Moscow says of her daughter, who has a learning disability. “And sometimes when we have learning problems, we have to find a place that feels comfortable and you’re accepted. That’s basically why we come here.”
Stephan Wright, 28, graduated from the Panera-Goodwill partnership program two years ago and now works as a café staffer. Wright, who has ADHD and also helps kids with learning disabilities, is a favorite among regulars. He hopes to advance to a job as a café ambassador, someone whose duties include telling first-time customers how the pay-what-you-can system works.
Zykan is optimistic about the café’s future, despite the corporate subsidies it relies on to make ends meet. “We have a lease here for another six years,” the manager says with a smile. “So I’m hoping at least until then.”