Feeding the hungry at Panera Bread

Not by coincidence, I’m blogging today from a Panera Bread cafe near my home in Bethesda, MD. The atmosphere is pleasant, the people are friendly, the wi-fi is reliable and the food is pretty good. (I have a weak spot for the shortbread cookies.) But, as I learned recently, there’s more to this company than meets the eye of a casual visitor.

I wrote a story about Panera Bread this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. The peg was the release of the company’s comprehensive food policy, which is worthwhile — the company is going to try to get rid of all artificial flavorings and colorings in its food by 2016  – but unremarkable in a world where fast-casual competitors like Chipotle and SweetGreen market “food with integrity” or “authentic food.”

What stands out about Panera is its commitment to doing something about hunger in America. Its CEO, Ron Shaich, has spoken eloquently about the problem. Panera has long donated leftover food to homeless shelters and food pantries. Most interestingly, though, Panera through its foundation has opened five “community cafes” where people pay whatever they want. The “community cafes” suggest donations, but there are no fixed prices. The hope is that those with means will pay enough so that those who are poor can eat there, too, and enjoy the full Panera experience–the food, service, atmosphere, maybe even the wi-fi. The concept is working fairly well, although Shaich told me that the cafes still require modest subsidies from the foundation.

Here’s how my story begins:

When you hear the word company, what comes to mind? You might think about business, or perhaps the military (a company of soldiers), the arts (a touring company) or the evening ahead (are you expecting company?). The word company evolved from the Old Frenchcompaignon, literally “one who breaks bread with another”, and before that from the Latin panis, for “bread”. A company, in the broadest sense of the word, is a group of people who join together to do something no one can do alone.

Which is a fitting introduction to the fast-casual restaurant chain Panera Bread – yes, the name comes from that same word panis, Latin for bread – and its founder and CEO, Ron Shaich. An idealist, Shaich pondered a career in politics before opening a tiny cookie shop in Boston in 1980.

Since then, Shaich has consciously tried to build a company that is about more than the bottom line. Today, the 60-year-old CEO guides a chain of 1,800 restaurants that serves more than eight million customers a week and employs more than 80,000 people. Last year, Panera generated $2.3bn in revenues and nearly $200m in profits.

But, as Shaich told me by phone the other day, Panera’s purpose is not to generate revenues or profits. Its purpose is to serve: to serve good food, and to serve its customers, workers and communities. If it does those things well, he says, business results will follow.

“If we don’t touch people, and we don’t make a difference in their lives in a real way, we don’t have a reason to exist,” Shaich says. Companies need to sustain those around them. “If all we’re about is extracting profits from the community, there’s not going to be a community left from which to extract profits.”

You can read the rest of the story here.