Panera cares raises concerns

By The Columbia Chronicle

Panera Bread opened its fourth nonprofit restaurant, Panera Cares, in Lakeview during the summer. The restaurant, located at 616 W. Diversey Parkway, provides affordable meals to those in need but has received mixed reviews from locals and neighboring businesses.

The menu and service mirror that of other Panera Bread locations, except that it is entirely donation-based and caters to a low-income demographic, which Lakeview residents believe is detracting from the neighborhood.

Panera Cares employs “ambassadors,” a title assigned to workers who are responsible for explaining Panera Cares guidelines to new customers unfamiliar with the cafe’s donation concept.

Liesl Goetz, one such ambassador, said the restaurant is not just aimed at the poor and homeless, but at all individuals facing tough economic times.

“It’s not always homeless people,” Goetz said. “[We] get people who have a home, but they are paying for their children’s education, paying for their own education and making housing payments. So we’re helping them out by giving them one less thing to pay for.”

The Lakeview cafe used to be a standard Panera Bread, and some former customers have walked away since the change.

“The restaurant has gone downhill, [and] the crowd in there is different,” Lakeview resident Amy Maddens said. “I have a 1-year-old baby and a 7-year-old. I won’t take my children in there, [because] the crowd doesn’t look like they should be around children.”

Surrounding businesses have had a few months to adjust, but some share Maddens’ sentiment regarding the restaurant’s latest customers.

Paul Schonove, an employee of the Inn at Lincoln Park, located across the street from Panera Cares, said he finds the cafe’s patrons gathering in the basement of an abandoned building the hotel owns and plans to renovate.

“It’s been a daily thing,” Schonove said. “We never had problems until they opened.”

Other businesses surrounding Panera Cares have said the restaurant’s opening has actually been an advantage. Potbelly Sandwich Shop employee Chandler McGee said Panera Cares’ reputation is actually helping his restaurant’s sales.

“Customers are more concerned about the type of crowd you will find in the restaurant,” McGee said. “Perhaps [Panera] cares too much and aren’t regulating their traffic.”

Maddens said she would no longer patronize the restaurant after an incident her husband witnessed while dining there. When Maddens’ husband was paying for his meal, he donated a few dollars, only to later witness two customers order $28 worth of food, claiming they could only afford to make a $2 donation.

Maddens explained that it was difficult for her to feel bad when the two allegedly low-income customers had iPhone and Blackberry smartphones. She said she isn’t against the store’s concept but rather the clientele it is attracting.

Although area businesses have voiced concerns, Goetz said she hasn’t heard much complaining.

“There have been suggestions that maybe we are drawing people to the area, but the thing is, when [Panera Cares] chose these locations, they decided to choose [Lakeview] because we are in a mixed area,” Goetz said. “We are in an area where there are homeless people, and instead of ignoring them, we are acknowledging that they are here.”

While Lakeview residents seem less than thrilled, Alderman Tom Tunney (44th Ward) applauded the restaurant’s nonprofit efforts to support the community.

“The Panera Cares concept is innovative and a work in progress,” Tunney said in an Oct. 11 statement. “They are a big company and they will get it right. We are working with [Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy] and neighborhood groups to make it safe for the community and safe for the customers.”

Panera Cares has had successful openings in Michigan, Oregon and Missouri. The next location is set to open in Boston. Panera Bread Foundation has a goal to annually open two Panera Cares in the U.S. annually.