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Take Five: Panera remains committed to its efforts to fight food insecurity, says spokeswoman

Kate Antonacci
Provided by Panera

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Three years after Panera Bread launched an innovative social experiment to help feed hungry Americans, the Saint Louis Bread Co.’s nonprofit café in downtown Clayton remains a work in progress, says Kate Antonacci, who directs the corporate initiative.

The bottom line is that the doors remain open, and Panera remains committed to the endeavor, she said.

The Panera Bread Foundation, the company’s nonprofit arm, has opened four additional venues in Dearborn, Mich., Portland, Ore., Chicago and Boston where they are called Panera Cares Community Cafes. Customers at the nonprofit cafes make donations instead of paying set prices for the same menu – and ambiance – offered in the nearly 1,700 bakery-cafes owned or franchised by Panera. 

Atonacci’s job with Panera, which is headquartered in St. Louis, has one of the more unique titles in corporate America: director of societal impact initiatives. The company, whose new marketing theme is to “Live consciously, eat deliciously,” continues to "evolve” its philanthropic efforts, she said.

"To us it’s not about just writing a check. We really want to figure out the best ways to use those dollars to deliver the types of food that we think people who are food insecure need,” Antonacci said.

The challenge, she said, is to think outside the box to try and find innovative ways to attack a problem that is huge in scale: More than 17 million U.S. households are “food insecure,’’ the term analysts for the U.S. Department of Agriculture use to describe Americans struggling with hunger.

"To us, this is a problem that will not be solved by one company through one initiative,’’ she said. “It’s how can you continue to evolve the way you approach what at times seems like a very unwieldy and enormous problem. We’re always trying to think of new things we can do. We have the scale of 1,700 stores, so how do we use that to try and make a difference?’’

Antonacci has held her post since March, though she has been with Panera for six years. Previously, she worked on special projects with Panera founder Ron Schaich. The community cafes were the brainchild of Schaich who in a video on the Panera website, describes his experiences with the "inefficiencies” of nonprofit food distribution programs and his desire to use his expertise to do it better. 

The nonprofit cafes are an expansion of Panera’s more traditional charitable efforts, Antonacci noted. The company has been donating unsold bread and bakery goods to local charities for 25 years through its "Day-End Dough-Nation” program; the retail value of those goods was $100 million last year.

The company recently altered its "Community Breadbox” program -- in which it matches a percentage of the cash donations made by its customers -- so that half of the contributions are made in cash to local hunger initiatives and half goes to provide Panera soup to members of Feeding America, an alliance of 200 food banks across the nation, including the St. Louis Area Foodbank. Under the program, frozen bags of Panera’s black bean soup – the same soup that is sold in its restaurants -- is distributed nationally to food pantries and soup kitchens served by Feeding America members.

Panera is reviewing the "meal of shared responsibility,” which it has been testing in all of its St. Louis area cafes since March, Antonacci said. The meal -- turkey chili served in a bread bowl -- has no set price. Customers could either pay the $5.89 suggested price, pay more to help cover the cost for those who couldn’t afford to pay, or pay any amount they could afford to pay. By mid-May, 10,000 of the meals had been ordered, with 40 percent of customers paying the suggested price and 30 percent paying more and 30 percent paying less.

"Over time, I think participation was highest at the beginning, so we’re trying to determine whether this is the most effective vehicle over the long term,’’ Antonacci said.

Here are more excerpts from the Beacon’s interview with Antonacci:

Skeptics wondered whether people who could afford to pay might take advantage of the nonprofit cafes. Are the nonprofits holding their own financially? Do people pay extra to offset the cost for those who can’t afford a meal?

Antonacci: Even internally, there were a lot of people that we had to convince that this was a good idea. The only way to do that was to actually get one opened and show that it’s making a difference and it’s sustaining itself. It’s a constant battle. It’s not something we can check off our list.

Generally, 60 percent of people leave the suggested amount. About 15 to 20 percent leave more and 15 to 20 percent leave less, significantly less or nothing. Over time, the people who are leaving less skews lower, as you get more people who are in more need and the amount they are leaving becomes even lower. And the same thing happens on the upper end. People are extremely generous when you first start and then are still generous but maybe not as generous as time goes on. The key is to continue to capture new audiences -- bringing new people in so that you’re not working within a limited pool of customers all the time.

The cafes are run by the Panera Bread Foundation, which is a separate 501(c)(3), but there are instances if a cafe doesn’t generate enough funding in a given month that Panera will step in and we’ll provide the funding. But that would not be sustainable over the long term. So we do spend a lot of time trying to figure out ways to encourage customers to share in the responsibility and making sure they’re aware of what the responsibility is -- that it’s not OK to come in every day and think that you don’t need to contribute. This was never meant to be a permanent solution, like a soup kitchen. This was meant to be a temporary hand up, so education is at the forefront of our efforts to be sustainable.

Some cafes are doing better than others. Panera is wholly committed to these five that we have opened, and I think we will do everything in our power to ensure that they stay open. I think what would happen -- over two to three years if this wasn’t sustaining itself -- that would preclude us from continuing to do it. We don’t want to get to that situation because we know these cafes help a lot of people. We’re always trying to work with the café teams to be credible and sustainable.

The Clayton café served as the prototype. Were there any surprises?

Antonacci: Ron [Schaich] and I often talk about those first few weeks when we opened that store. We had spent two months perfecting every single word on our mission banner. We were so proud of the way the cafe looked and the signs. And we opened and people totally ignored the signs. Nobody read the mission statement. Nobody had any clue what we were talking about. We realized we had gotten comfortable with this idea of a community nonprofit café, but customers were not expecting that from Panera. There was a huge communication hurdle that we weren’t expecting and had to adjust to. We did that by adding people -- humans --instead of a sign. Somebody who would stand there and talk to people and explain how these cafes work.

Another challenge -- and this is one that we’re constantly working on -- is figuring out ways we can help our staff members who work in these cafes to really become educated about food insecurity. When you work in a Panera Cares you’re not just a cashier; there are all the other factors that are going on.

Another surprise is that [the Clayton prototype] is still there. We hit our three-year anniversary in May, and I don’t think we knew what would happen when we first opened. That was a big fear of our associates; what’s going to happen if in three months you shut it down? And then what happens to me? And to these people in the community who are hungry? We felt an extraordinary burden to make it work. To try to figure out how to solve problems quickly and always work toward better exemplifying our mission of feeding people with dignity.

And I think the final surprise or challenge is that we really do have a restored confidence in humanity. There are so many beautiful things that you see occur in these cafes on a daily basis. It restores your faith in humanity but also in what a company can do if you are really willing to try things that are innovative and may seem a little bit crazy or disruptive. But at the end of the day, that’s how you’re actually able to make a difference.

The five nonprofit cafes are located in the Midwest and on both coasts. Have you found any differences regionally?

Antonacci: That’s a great question. We’ve been careful to choose sites in neighborhoods that have similar demographics. Neighborhoods that have economic diversity -- people who would need it and people who would support it.

The issues that we see in each community are different. In Portland, for example, the weather is more temperate and there are a ton of social service resources out there. We see a [transient] population there that we had to get educated about that call themselves road warriors. It was a different culture of need and a population we hadn’t encountered in any of the cities before.

Some cafes probably have more families with kids coming in -- like Clayton or a Dearborn that are in more residential areas.

The one similarity that is a constant is that there is no one person who comes in who embodies what food insecurity looks like. There is no one face of hunger. People don’t understand that. You hear about hunger and the first reaction is that it can’t be going on in the United States, the wealthiest country in the world with bountiful amounts of food. Hunger happens in Africa where you see kids with distended bellies.

But you have to think about all the factors that could influence food insecurity: economic factors, federal and state budget factors, where funding is allocated, housing. One of the biggest drivers is unemployment. So for a lot of people this is a temporary problem. People who are on [food stamps] usually are only on them for 10 months or so. You’re talking about people who are struggling. Middle-class people who may have had one spouse lose their job or somebody got sick and they have huge bills they weren’t anticipating. The cost of rent, electricity don’t go away. So food often becomes one of the first things that falls out. That’s how people are falling into a cycle of hunger.

Only 10 percent of people who are hungry in the U.S. are homeless. The other 90 percent are this hidden population that people are skeptical about. They don’t look like the stereotype of what we would think a hungry person is. We met with folks at the USDA’s food and nutrition programs a few weeks ago and they said "You need to help us educate your customers that many of the people who are hungry are their neighbors, their family members, their friends."

Your job title is unique. Does Panera’s corporate culture drive these efforts to battle hunger?

Antonacci: Values are not things that you can just wake up one day and say "This is what our company is going to stand for." We have deeply embedded values that have been within our organization for 30-plus years.

I think there is a real difference between the idea of cause -- of companies trying to latch on to a cause and using it more as marketing -- and this idea of culture. Of something being deeply embedded within the values of your organization. It’s the idea of us being present and a good neighbor in our communities. 

For us, trying to solve problems like hunger that are very real in our communities is not asking us to step outside our box. We know how to feed people within these 1,700 communities. To us, it’s about how do we take what we know how to do and make an impact on society.

How do you think the concept of nonprofit cafes will evolve to battle hunger, which is such a pervasive and persistent problem in the U.S.?

Antonacci: We opened our fifth one in January [in Boston]. I don’t think we’ll open any more this year. What we’re trying to do is figure out how you can leverage the space.

We have these places that have become kind of community centers. So how do we expand the programming that we offer out of these sites? We have volunteer programs now. We have job-training programs. Are there ways that you can layer in education classes? Can you bring in people who can teach about healthy eating and nutrition and how that’s related to food insecurity? We’re trying to figure out all the ways we can take advantage of having these physical community gathering spaces that happen to bring in a crowd that we’re trying to talk to -- people who are food insecure and people who are interested in addressing food insecurity.

That is our hope for this year for these cafes -- to see how we can get the most out of them and add the most benefits to the communities.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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