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Panera Cares Strives to Bring Food to the Needy and Hungry

Heights Editor

Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 22:02

What does social responsibility tangibly look like? One may not realize it, but it can take the form of a seemingly simple community cafe.

Panera Cares Cafe, a 501(c)(3) non-profit operated by the Panera Bread Foundation, not to be confused with the corporate entity Panera Bread, has taken on the role of providing donations-based meals to all people regardless of their monetary resources. Recently opened at 3 Center Plaza across the street from the Government Center T station in downtown Boston, the cafe seeks to embrace the diversity of the surrounding neighborhood and as well as the various social services and agencies located nearby.

What may at first glance seem like an ordinary Panera Bread restaurant complete with the classic soup and salad combos and tasty bakery treats is actually a self-sustaining non-profit that seeks to break down barriers and address the stigmas that go along with the national problem of food insecurity. The cafe’s mission, according to the Boston location’s general manager Jimmy Hoppers, is that Panera Cares “exists to feed everyone who walks through [the] doors regardless of their means so that all may eat with dignity.” He sees the cafe as a model for corporate responsibility, a way for the company to utilize its talents to the best ability and apply them towards fostering the common good in the community.

An important point expressed by Hoppers about the location is that there is a “healthy mix” of people who have and people who need, which further enforces the communal responsibility ideals of the cafe. In Hoppers’ eyes, the location, along with the types of customers frequenting it, make the cafe a place where people can come together and “be as one,” regardless of their social or financial standing. It is “one of the few places everyone is truly equal” as both rich and poor can dine together on the same quality meals.

The five cafes located around the nation are all self-sustaining entities that not only seek to provide food security, but also to cultivate community responsibility. Cash or credit, everything one puts into the donation box, not the register, is a contribution to the foundation to cover their operating costs, and the ability for those without the means to afford a full meal enjoy the same opportunities as those better off financially. This is when the customer must decide what their fair share will be.

Hoppers mentioned that those with the means to afford a meal are encouraged to pay full price as well as a little extra to help cover the costs of another person’s meal. This is all in place so that customers who do not have the means to afford the full cost of a meal can have a chance at receiving an equal level of sustenance as those in better financial positions. Customers in this position, however, are also expected to share in responsibility as they must either limit their free meals per week or volunteer for the cafe to work off the donation made on their behalf.

Making the Panera food experience accessible to people from all walks of life and allowing them to come together at a common location without judgment, social stigma, or a loss of dignity is at the core of what Panera Cares cafes are looking to achieve. “What makes me happiest is seeing a homeless man at one table, and a well-to-do woman at another and seeing them strike up a conversation that would not happen elsewhere,” Hoppers said.

Panera Cares is not looking to solve the hunger crisis in America by giving out free chipotle chicken sandwiches with chips on the side, but they are looking to break down socioeconomic barriers and foster a deeper sense of social responsibility and community among the dwellers of the towns where they operate. As their mission statement clearly states, their goal is for all people to be able to eat with dignity.

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