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Panera Cares, Boston

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Panera Cares, a charitable? arm of Panera Bread, has opened at Center Plaza in Boston. You pay what you can/want to pay. They tell you the "value" of your meal and then you place the money in a bin. They do, however, have rules and in my opinion are not very sensitive about people paying less than the value. What percentage of the value do you pay? IS it right to pay less if you are not poor?

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  1. The restaurant was recently featured on "Chronicle" on Channel 5. It was noted on the program that they collect about 90% of the retail value of their sales. It's an interesting concept.

    1. Is that your opinion or your experience? Because only the latter counts in this instance. As to whether its "right" to pay less if you are not poor: no it's not. This is a concept that's based on community and it's a darn nice one. Therefore, if you can pay a bit more (really, how much difference does an extra ,.25 cents make to most of us who post on Chowhound about the pleasures of spending money on eating out) you are being part of a community that supports a pleasant and not terribly demanding way to help others. For some people, it also helps with the nagging question of whether a handout is going for food or for something less defensible like alcohol. Panera also, if it matters to you, happens to participate in other ways of contributing: to community food banks and so on. So, while it might be a chain, it deserves to be applauded for trying to be a good community citizen. And no, I'm not an owner, stakeholder, or employee.

      1 Reply
      1. re: teezeetoo

        I love Panera for their commitment to sharing in their communities. They have a policy of over-stocking their bakery items daily so they have plenty of food to donate at the end of each day.

        When a new store opens, they actively seek out organizations who will help them get product from their stores at closing each day to local food banks, homeless meal venues, etc. Our church picks up at our local Panera three times a week and we deliver to our local food bank and shelter, who don't have staff who can pick up at 9:00-9:30 each evening. Every time I pick up, the trunk of my Volvo sedan is completely filled with product and I usually have at least half of my back seat filled as well. That is a lot of money's worth of product that they wouldn't need to make or donate.

        People can say what they want about the quality of food, the fact that they are a chain, etc., etc., but they have my respect for their policy of giving back.

      2. What a concept. It allow one to save their ebt cards for more important things like Victorias Secret, Tattoos and Casinos. Bravo! Cant wait! Plus gives Panera great free advertising, a tax write off and I wonder if meal tax is collected since all they are taking are "donations"....

        12 Replies
        1. re: hargau

          so I'm curious: does that mean that any effort at charity in the community should be ridiculed? If restaurants contribute food to the food bank and get a tax deduction does it necessarily mean that their motives are sinister? I'm really wondering about where all the cynicism leads: no one shall do anything unless I can prove it's above reproach? Trader Joe's founder (see today's Globe) is suggesting we do something with quality food that is wasted in a way that makes it useful to people who may need it: shall we immediately assume that he is merely trying to foist bad food off on poor people in order to get nice publicity? I'm inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to any effort that might make even a small difference in depressing hunger and improving community welfare.

          1. re: teezeetoo

            Panera already donates all leftover food to shelters, no problem with that. That is different than saying all your sales are only donations and avoiding collecting meals tax.. (if that is the case)... It is also different to donate food to a shelter than to encourage a sense of entitlement where one can go out to eat at a restaurant and simply pay whatever they feel like.

            There are also rules/regulations regarding who receives what kind of aid.. With something like this , what keeps the same drunk group of college kids from coming by every weekend for free munchies?

            When i cant afford to eat out, i dont eat out.. I would expect others to do the same but this encourages different..

            1. re: hargau

              There are always folks who try to rip off or cheat a system, but that's not Panera's problem -- it's on the conscience of those who are trying to pull one off. I applaud what Panera is trying to do, especially knowing that it can be ripe for abuse by those who feel entitled to free anything.

              I'm just glad to hear that there are good people who will try to do the right thing if they go to the Panera Cares. No different from the small population of blood donors who keep our blood banks and hospitals afloat for all to use in cases of medical emergencies, regardless of whether they're a donor or not or those few who still support public broadcasting for anyone who owns a tv set.

              1. re: kobuta

                I think it is different. Having a tv set entitles you to over the air tv you can get.. public broadcasting, is umm public and also receives govt subsidizing. Having a mouth does not entitle you to eat out at a restaurant.. regardless, i never went to panera anyway, certainly wont start cause of this.

                I am curious what the OP meant by not being sensitive and rules.

                1. re: hargau

                  I also don't care much for their product but disagree with you on their act of charity. There is a dignity of eating out in places that working people eat, that's not a homeless shelter or a mission. I've not been to Panera Cares but also saw the Chronicle piece. If one is unable to pay, it's possible to give your time (e.g. bus tables etc) in exchange for food. I think this is a novel concept that could make a difference to those in need. If that provides them with some PR, hopefully that might encourage others to consider those less fortunate.

                  1. re: gourmaniac

                    Say it wasnt Panera.. Say it was your favorite high end restaurant in Boston?? $50/plate kinda place.. How would you feel about it then? It sets a tone that everyone gets the same regardless if they can afford it or not and regardless of the reason they can/cant afford it and regardless if they really can/cant afford it...Dont worry, someone else has too much money and will pay more to make up for your not..

                    There are people who work very hard and consider going to Panera a luxury that they have earned. Dont you think it kind of takes away from that?? I know my grandparents may have ate out a dozen times in their life.. it was a luxury, not an entitlement.

                    1. re: hargau

                      But it isn't a $50/plate place. It's Panera and I guess I view the opportunity to eat a simple meal in public without the embarrassment of lack through the generosity of others is a blessing. It is a gift from the abundance of those who have enough and a sign of kindness in our society. I think anyone who resents this act of charity as somehow diminishing the value of their $8 lunch and entitling the destitute could perhaps look instead how kindness gets paid forward.

                      1. re: gourmaniac

                        Thank you! I completely agree that this is a fantastic concept and really an ingenious way for a corporation to provide food to people in need. Frankly, I'm somewhat shocked at the negative and cynical tone from others in this discussion. I applaud Panera for this creative outreach solution.

                        It should be noted that Panera Cares is a separate entity from Panera Bread Company. They are a fully non-profit organization, so apart from seed money and sustaining contributions, Panera Bread Company does NOT get a tax break on the operation of these stores. Furthermore, the stores are designed to be self-sufficient. In other words, the donations received simply pay for the operation. Period. You the customer does not pay tax because you the customer are making your own charitable donation. The store tells you the value of what you are about to receive and you decide what to pay.
                        Is it good publicity for Panera Bread? You bet it is!

                        It's also helping to raise awareness about food insecurity in this nation. Something we all should be concerned with.

                        Finally, in answer to the very first question asked in this thread, "Is it wrong to pay less than the value of the food if you are not poor?" Technically, and according to the store rules,
                        No.
                        Morally and ethically... That's another story.

                  2. re: hargau

                    You do get free tv - with local abc, cbs, fox and nbc affiliates (and a variety of others). Just because a channel is on the air doesn't mean it has to be free for all, as many cable channels prove. I believe the government subsidizes the educational programming - not to make sure everyone can have something to watch.

                    But back on topic - I'm neither here nor there on their actual food, but I think their gesture of trying to give back to the community is genuine. I'd be thrilled if other restaurants ever followed suit and did the same.

                2. re: hargau

                  "When i cant afford to eat out, i dont eat out.. I would expect others to do the same but this encourages different.."

                  BUT, the people this operation is reaching out to, in my understanding, are people who have to "eat out" for every meal; the homeless...If they have an option for a meal during the day, instead once in the evening when shelter opens its doors, I think it's great...
                  And that cashier giving the hairy eyeball? I hope she turns it on full blast for the drunk college kids; I know I do when I'm doing a food demo...

              2. re: hargau

                Meals tax is NOT collected!

                1. re: hargau

                  Folks, how EBT cards are used is pretty far off topic for Chowhound, so we're going to ask everyone to get back to discussing Panera Cares. Thanks.

                2. I'm fascinated by this concept in relation to how Panera justifies it as a public company. It's the whole concept of fiduciary responsibility (maximizing profitability for shareholders) vs. social responsibility (doing good deeds that you could argue benefit shareholders). Would love to be a fly on the wall when the Panera board talks about this.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: mkfisher

                    Check out their Annual Report.

                    They really couldn't launch a program like this without Board approval. It's ongoing in several other cities besides Boston.

                    1. re: C. Hamster

                      It is quite simple, they say they get 90% of the costs already + they get tax benefits i am sure + they can simply raise the prices at all the other panera locations a few pennies and it all balances out as the same..

                      1. re: hargau

                        your points, that in theory they get 90% cost already, plus tax benefit, are good, but that last part about raising prices doesn't add up (pun totally intended)- if it were possible to raise price elsewhere without decreasing demand, they'd (by this logic) be obligated to do that *and* not lose money on the Panera cares locations to meet their fiduciary responsibility.

                        that said, mkfisher, lots of big public companies have charitable portions, so i'm sure there's a standard way of rationalizing this re: fiduciary responsibility (good will--> increased sales etc.), but yeah, would be interesting to see how annual report talks about it.

                        1. re: hargau

                          They get no tax benefits beyond those any business would get for the raw materials and labor costs. If they sell the items for $10 they have $10 of income that gets taxed. If they sell the same items for $5 they have $5 of income that gets taxed. If they give it away, they have $0 of income that gets taxed.

                          If getting taxed on $0 is better than getting taxed on $10, while also not receiving $10 then I guess it's a benefit.

                        2. re: C. Hamster

                          I already looked at the report. They make no mention from what I can tell besides acknowledging that they exist and do good deeds. No mention from what I can tell on analyst calls either. Clearly there is support of the board, but I think it's quite naive to think that the initial concept yielded immediate support. While most large corporations do engage in charitable endeavors, this would seem to be an out of the box approach (which I applaud them for). There had to be a discussion at some point about the sustainability of this type of establishment. It's also fascinating to think about the locations they have chosen so far. It's been urban areas like Boston, Portland, Chicago and Dearborn MI. However, they also chose Clayton, MO which is an affluent suburb of St. Louis (think Chestnut Hill). Again, just interesting things to think about as we'll never know the real answer.

                      2. Can you elaborate on the rules and lack of sensitivity about people paying less than then the value?

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: olyolyy

                          If you order more than one thing, they say you need to pay the full price for one entree. Given that truly poor people are usually hungry, this seems like a limit that hurts the truly poor. I also felt that there was a subtle push to pay the full total by the cashier, though she really had no way of knowing if I could.

                          Interestingly, the few times I have been there the crowd has been a upscale office crowd. I saw very few people who looked (again difficult to judge) down on their luck. I am not saying that is PC's fault, only an observation.

                          1. re: navigator4

                            yeah, i mean what a tough position to be in as the cashier though since you have to balance the fact that, ofr the place to survive, you do need to get a good number of donations, but at the same time you (hopefully) are doing your best not to 'profile' people based on who can pay and who can't. The two item thing is tough, for sure, but at the same time there is the balance of trying to have enough food for everyone, so one assumes you need a cap somewhere (two entrees, three? etc.).

                            def. interesting observations on your part, it makes me wonder how tough it is to pull off this sort of operation in order to keep it running and fulfill its purpose at same time.

                        2. I'm not a fan of the food at Panera but have office liunches grought in by them.

                          That said, I think it's a great thing that they're doing in Center Plaza. They will likely give out a lot of food to the residents of nearby NE Homeless Veterans Shelter; which is a very worthwhile cause.

                          As for those that can afford to pay full boat but choose not to, they have to live with themselves. Panera is trusting that the good will they create will outweigh the few cheapskates who take advantage. As to a public corp making a charitable donation, many do now, legally with shareholder approval and a tax ddeduction, just like any other charitable donation. Don't know how the city handles the sales tax but I'd guess you're taxed on what you sell it for.

                          Panera goes way up in my book for this. Wish I liked the food better..:)

                          1. I think the concept is a good one, but whether it works out the way it was designed is something else altogether.

                            As far as the poster who make the comment about people and their EBT cards, it was always my understanding, having volunteered at a food pantry for many years, that you cannot use your EBT card for take-out food so they will still have to shop and cook at home unless they sell it on the street for cash to use for their other vices which some of them certainly manage to do.

                            I also read the Globe article today about TJ's, but it seems some in the community where they plan to locate are not too receptive. Also a good concept, but will it work?

                            1. It is an interesting model..and certainly seems to be a successful one so far.
                              It might be interesting to note that giving people who can't afford it a break on a meal is not the sole purpose of the Panera Cares Cafes. The Panera Bread Foundation also uses some of these proceeds to give grants to other non profits. I think last year something like 80 non profits benefited from this.
                              Panera Bread Co wins because they get great publicity..a tax write off for everything they "donate" to the Panera Cares Cafe and people who may otherwise be too busy to make a difference can go enjoy a lunch and feel like they are helping their fellow man.
                              It is hard to see the negatives with this.

                              1. Reviving this a little. I've paid full suggested value during the number of occasions I've been there. However, I do know of some less fortunate friends that do go there as well for a positive place to have a meal. According to those people, they really don't take it lightly when you ask to charge less than suggested value onto a debit/credit card or a gift card as they ask are you sure you want to do this. Latter, I can understand but you can't judge someone on what way they decide to give.

                                I've had a friend that makes way less than living standard that decided to eat there and they really twisted his arm to give full suggested value despite he was already paying $22 in train fare to get to an interview (and he didn't get the job). So they were judging him on his suit.

                                Same friend then was down there for a networking group meeting and went to Panera Cares beforehand. This time, in business casual. He ordered big because he was hungry but only could afford a few bucks. The manager was not happy at him but was polite about it that he should have donated more for his $15 and change order.

                                They did give someone I observed a full salad and a bowl of chili for free, but they said never again but we'll allow this today to him. They told him only 1 full salad, sandwich, or soup (or a you pick two) per week for free.

                                They did ask a homeless man (looked like he is a regular) if he was going to put any money into the box today. He had to show his cash for them to stop twisting his arm.

                                Great concept overall and I applaud Panera for doing it but they do need to be more sensitive to people's needs. Or to be fair, it could be something that I'm not seeing in the economics of operating the community cafe as they say they collect 70% of suggested meal value and net margin of Panera as a company is 65%. I do give them credit that there's people that need them, there's honest people that give at least suggested value (or more), and there's people that cheat the system. They can not judge someone based on how they dress or the computer they bring in as it can be someone that has been dealt an unlucky hand of cards in life that is trying their best to pick themselves off the ground, and those are the people who need this cafe the most.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Karrott

                                  So basically, without the brow beating, the concept would not actually work. Too bad.

                                  I wonder if anyone gives more than the suggested value, to help subsidize this venture (which iirc was mentioned during the rollout). I am guessing not.

                                  I am asked to give a donation at Petco every time I buy cat litter. I assume Panera does not employ this tactic?

                                2. I am glad to read about this corporate giving, and i am curious>> i thought Panera was a franchise. (an acquaintance owns one)So how does that work vis a vis
                                  Panera Cares, i wonder. Maybe PC is owned by 'corporate' and others are franchises....

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: opinionatedchef

                                    So there are some franchises and some corporate owned Paneras. They're rather quite selective than most franchisee restaurant programs. Panera Cares is a CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiative of Panera. I've seen people donate right around the value of their meals and under but nothing significantly above, so it's too bad they are twisting people's arms that really need them.

                                    But if you just go in there and you hand over your credit card and say charge the suggested amount, you'll receive good service. Hopefully, the profit margin they'll make will allow them to be a little more forgiving to the people who don't contribute the suggested amount (especially those that need them).