By CHRIS JACKETT
DEARBORN – Hungry residents who are short on funds have a new option for lunch starting this week.
Panera Bread, 22208 Michigan Ave. closed last week and reopened Sunday as Panera Cares, a similar venue under new nonprofit ownership of the Panera Bread Foundation.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony was scheduled Monday afternoon for what is just the second Panera Cares eatery in the nation. The first – Clayton, Mo.-based Saint Louis Bread Company Cares Cafe – opened in May about eight miles west of St. Louis, where the company was founded, and has held its own as a nonprofit business.
“I think we feel confident enough in the Clayton one to open a second one. I think each community will react differently. We just need to see as we move along,” said Kate Antonacci, spokeswoman for Panera, who was at the Dearborn location during employee training Friday. “Detroit in general, we were just itching. With unemployment, it just felt right to us. We want it to be accessable where people can pay. You don’t want it to be in the worst part of town where no one would pay.”
The way Panera Cares operates is similar to a typical Panera Bread as far as what patrons will see and taste, but with one major twist: Everything is operated on a donations basis. Although the menu still will have the same prices listed next to items as it did before, those now are suggested donation prices.
Panera Cares operates completely on donations. Patrons can pay any amount for their food, ranging from well over cost to paying nothing at all, depending on their financial situation and how giving they feel on any given day. Any extra funds earned beyond operating costs are donated toward local community programs.
“We realized early out it was important to let the community know what it means to be self-sustaining,” Antonacci said. “All of this, to us, is just a test. Now six months in, it’s sustaining. It’s running about 80 to 85 cents to the dollar of what people leave.”
The idea for the nonprofit Panera Cares project was spurred during several visits by Panera Bread LLC co-founder and former Chief Executive Officer Ron Shaich to similar eateries. Inspiration came from visits to SAME Cafe in Denver, One World Everybody Eats in Salt Lake City and Community Kitchen in Highland Park, N.J., as well as numerous soup kitchens throughout the United States.
“We just started going around. Some have donation guidance, some have cash registers, some have donation baskets,” Antonacci said. “We started visiting soup kitchens. You realize, if you’re going to do this, that you have to capture the same environment in Panera Cares as you do in Panera Bread.”
Antonacci said she really hasn’t gotten reactions from nearby businesses in west Dearborn yet because the change was just made public on Thursday.
“I haven’t heard anything yet,” she said. “In St. Louis, it’s been mixed. It was really hard because there’s a diner next to us and a spaghetti place down the street. They felt we were taking their customers. Truthfully, there was another sandwich shop that opened up nearby.
“We have a lot of people who are insanely supportive.”
Although some patrons may feel guilty not paying for food if they truly cannot afford it, Antonacci said a short-term volunteer program is available where people can work for an hour cleaning tables and receive a food voucher to drop in the donation box.
“The most fundamental good out of this is that you can feed people,” she said. “You can’t impose your judgement. There’s a lot of changes, and it’s at a cost to the cafe. It’s sort of this big test of humanity to see what people will do. Will they help out the guy in line behind them?”
Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. declined to comment Friday on the new donation-based format the venue would be operating under until after the grand opening. He also was not confirmed as of Friday to attend the ribbon cutting Monday, contrary to what a media release from Panera Cares stated on Thursday. No reason for the lack of attendance confirmation was given.
The new business hours are 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days per week.
(Contact Chris Jackett at [email protected])