Panera Cares; dead up.

Taking a quick reprieve from my Morocco journal to reflect on an experience that’s still happening.

I’m leaving Portland in a few hours to go back to Atlanta.  I’m returning to my grandfather after a long time away.  I slept on the couch of my friend’s cousin.  We called at 1pm and asked if I could spend that evening on his couch or whatever.  He called back at 4pm to say, “Sure!”  That’s the Miesle clan for ya. Always an open door for a stranger.  This is not the first time I’ve used my friendship with them to stay in a complete stranger’s home.   I feel like that’s what strangers are supposed to be; really awesome in moments of need.  In Morocco they have a saying pronounced, “DayfAllah.”  You can show up at someone’s house, knock on the door, say, “DayfAllah” and they basically have to let you stay there for at least the night. They’ll offer you shelter and food and tea.  You offer your best houseguest skills and take solace in having a nifty place to stay for the night. 

Even though I’m the kind of stranger you want to be around if something happens to you.  The sporadic kindness of strangers still surprises me.  I will stop, help, and make sure you’re cool for the foreseeable future.  It doesn’t often happen that someone returns the favor.  Apparently, Panera Bread Company is also a similar quality of stranger.  Let me introduce you to Panera Cares.

Panera Cares is a new kind of cafe – one that exemplifies an entirely different way of giving back. It is a community cafe of shared responsibility. One of the goals of this charitable program is to ensure that everyone who needs a meal gets one. People are encouraged to take what they need and donate their fair share. There are no prices or cash registers, only suggested donation levels and donation bins.” – Panera Bread Company

As soon as I walked in the door a woman with a “Georgia” name tag greeted me in a way that was, initially, unnerving.  She seemed like an overeager sales associate and I immediately searched my brain for ways to avoid her. I didn’t find any.  She asked me if I’d ever been into this location before and I told her I hadn’t. She explained that this branch was a little different and that they were one store out of five in the Nation.  The “prices” on the menu were suggestions, not prices. She went on to explain that if I could afford my meal then I could could pay. If not, then that was alright.  She also told me that large backpacks were not permitted in the cafe and I’d have to leave it at the side.  I was carrying one large multi-day pack, my smaller day pack and my leather bag. She also said that she would watch it for me to ensure that nothing happened to it. (She didn’t, but hey). I went to the register ordered a large soup and handed the clerk a ten dollar bill. She handed me a five and five ones and it didn’t register.  I could have said, “Thanks!” picked up my soup and bounced.  Instead I dropped the five in the donation bin and stepped to the side.  Could I have used a free meal? Absofreakinlutely.  I paid because I felt this heavy societal pressure to do my due diligence. It was also super important to me to not be lumped into the bundle that was homelessness.  I feel guilty writing this, but I didn’t want any of those people thinking I was homeless.  Man, I wish that weren’t a stigma.

I’ve read quite a few articles on how successful this program has been.  Here are some of the links:

  1. Problems at Panera Cares – Eater PDX

  2. Panera Cares Community Cafe – Panera Bread

  3. Panera Cares pay-what-you-can cafe learns about entitlement

  4. Panera Cares

I’m super happy that this is happening and I hope it lasts — and spreads like herpes.  Panera Bread is a huge corporate entity and I’m glad they’re figuring out a way to make the business model work.  I’m not up on my food security game and there are probably hundreds of community based organizations that have been doing this for years.  This is the first time I’ve heard of it. 

People love their Panera Bread. When our local Burger King was replaced by a Panera my hometown neighbors collectively and gleefully lost their shit.  Almost a decade later it is still packed to the hilt with elderly White people every Sunday. 

Yes Panera Cares has had it’s issues.  I appreciate the tactics they’ve adopted to address those issues.  I can think of several corporations that would benefit from it’s tutelage.

*I’d like to note, someone is walking around giving away free Panera Bread baguettes as I type. A blog entry to follow will examine why being here makes me so damn uncomfortable.*


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