Panera Cares Chief Executive Officer Ron Saich (second from left) speaks to employees, patrons and the media during the Nov. 22 Panera Cares grand opening as Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. (left) listens.
By CHRIS JACKETT
DEARBORN – The smell of warm bread was in the air as the new Panera Cares recently was unveiled on the west side of town.
Patrons made the rounds as usual Nov. 22, but noticed a new change that goes beyond the name of the former Panera Bread at 22208 Michigan Ave. Panera Cares provides the same food and service of a typical Panera Bread, except the restaurant is run completely on donations, meaning visitors can pay as much or as little as they’d like for a meal.
“As it was described to us, we took a leap of faith. By the power of commitment, we cannot fail,” said General Manager Mark Sliwa. “The people who are going to be the naysayers or question it need to come see it. You don’t have to be driven by the bottom line.”
Operated by the Panera Bread Foundation, the Dearborn location is only the second of its kind in the nation. The other is the very first Panera Bread venue in Clayton, Mo., which converted its metropolitan St. Louis venue earlier this year.
“We’re very excited to open here in Dearborn. This has been a very good cafe for us,” said co-founder and former Panera Bread CEO Ron Saich. “Panera has had extraordinary success in the country, and in particular in Michigan. So many community members are part of the Panera experience. By sharing the responsibility with each other, we can in some way take care of each other.”
Saich and Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. both stressed the sense of community necessary to make Panera Cares a success.
“The first reaction, naturally, is ‘Why are we changing?’ ” O’Reilly said. “For Dearborn, this really is important. It’s a tribute to Dearborn. This store is both a strong store and has a strong sense of community. It works in a community that has a sense of community and a sense of giving.”
Rachel Higginbotham, a Washington, D.C., resident who was in town for unrelated business, said she is a regular at Panera Bread eateries while she’s on the road. Originally hailing from the South County area, 15 miles south of St. Louis, Higginbotham has been familiar with the restaurant since its start near her hometown.
“I guess the idea is that if people can’t afford it, they can just make a donation. It’s pretty cool. I’m interested to why they go down this path,” Higginbotham said. “I travel and see a lot of Paneras. Everything’s the same except the signs. It’s a pretty cool idea, and it’ll be interesting to see how many people take them up on that offer.”
The project has been a success in Clayton, and Saich said any additional funds earned by the Dearborn venue would go back into the community. Officials indicated Panera Cares would work with at-risk youths, but did not have any organizations specified.
“If we can cover our expenses here, we hope to help at-risk kids,” he said.