Panera Bread has shuttered the last of its ideologically driven “pay what you want” restaurants. The socialist-tinged ventures were called “Panera Cares” and the higher-ups have finally figured out that “caring” is not synonymous with “viable business model.” On February 15, the final Panera Cares, located in Boston, will close.
The website Eater gives Panera Cares’ history and provides the company’s motivation behind the now-defunct mission:
The chain opened its first donation-based community cafe in St. Louis, Missouri, in 2010. Under the model championed by the company’s founder Ron Shaich, the restaurant operated like a typical Panera, but offered meals at a suggested donation price, with the goal of raising awareness about food insecurity. “In many ways, this whole experiment is ultimately a test of humanity,” Shaich said in a TEDx talk later that year. “Would people pay for it? Would people come in and value it?” It appears the answer is a resounding no.
Food insecurity? While having a pretty good idea of what the term means, I still looked it up. According to Feeding Texas, “Food insecurity offers an accepted method for measuring food deprivation.”
You know who’s probably suffering from food insecurity? The employees of Panera Cares who are no longer employed and no longer receive paychecks. You can’t buy food if you don’t have a job, and providing jobs is only assured if companies are focused on making money. If Panera had cared more about making money than promoting a constantly refuted ideology, its employees would still be receiving paychecks. Frighteningly, though, a growing segment of the populace seems to be allergic to common-sense economic principles.
Resources and wealth do not exist in a vacuum. Someone had to provide and pay for the tables, chairs, ovens, checkout computers, et al. that allowed Panera Cares to provide a service to their customers. And that’s not to mention the food costs, salaries, and the overhead that come with doing business in a building that requires electricity, climate-controlled temperatures, and, well, walls and a ceiling. Making money costs money. This is why businesses that give their stuff away or sell it below the market rate go out of business. All the caring and empathy in the world can’t change the fact that it cost money to provide Panera Cares’ customers with food. And if the money that the company receives back is less than the money the company spent, everyone eventually loses.
The other side of that is that humans tend to be greedy and all about self-preservation. If you offer a customer the option to pay whatever they want, the vast majority of customers are not going to inquire about how much it cost the restaurant to put the food on their plate. Instead, as a general rule, customers are going to approach payment in terms of themselves. Which, to be fair, was Panera Cares’ stated desire — you know, raising awareness about food insecurity and providing people the ability to eat regardless of their economic status.
The irony in all this may be that Panera’s marketing department cooked Panera Cares up as a way to ingratiate the money-making side of Panera into the hearts of AOC- and Bernie-loving social justice warriors. Burgeoning socialists can now pay for and then eat their paninis guilt-free, knowing that Panera cares.