Nonprofit restaurant drawing ill-founded complaints

By Editorial Board

Panera Bread opened a nonprofit restaurant in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood on June 21 that allows customers to pay as much or as little for their meals as they are able. Recently, some members of the community have complained that the restaurant, called Panera Cares, 616 W. Diversey Parkway, is attracting a rough crowd, though police said they have not seen an increase in crime because of the restaurant.

Panera Cares, which states that its mission is to provide food for people who can’t afford it, is the only location in Chicago, and one of four such locations nationwide. Customers with no money can volunteer at the restaurant in exchange for their food, and according to statements made by restaurant manager Jeff Harman at a neighborhood meeting Oct. 8, only 20 percent of the restaurant’s customers pay less than the suggested price of their meal. He added that 20 percent actually pay more in hopes of helping the restaurant provide food to those who can’t afford it.

There have been some reports of trash piling up in the area surrounding Panera Cares, which is at the five-way intersection of Clark Street, Diversey Parkway and North Broadway. If that is the case, Panera should get involved, but it is certainly no reason to squelch its efforts to feed people. Lakeview is sending the wrong message to the company.

Even though there has been no measurable increase in crime, Panera has responded to complaints by assuring neighborhood residents that it is involved in the community and promising to take responsibility for any possible effects the nonprofit restaurant will have on the area. Managers from Panera Cares have been attending community police meetings and walking around the neighborhood to pick up trash and monitor people around their restaurant. They have also added locks to their bathroom doors to deter loiterers.

This isn’t the first time Lakeview residents have complained about local businesses. In 2011, two men wanted to open a hookah bar in the neighborhood but were met with resistance at a racially charged neighborhood meeting. According to the Roscoe View Journal, one attendee at the South Lakeview Neighbors meeting expressed concern after doing an Internet search for “hookah” and “crime,” and others objected to welcoming a business that attracts Middle Eastern customers who would “end up roaming around the neighborhood late at night.”

Without evidence of an increase in crime, Lakeview residents have little or no basis for their complaints. Lakeview should be proud to be involved in Panera Cares’ mission to feed people who are  in need. Hopefully, the nonprofit restaurant’s lukewarm reception from Lakeview residents will not discourage Panera from continuing its philanthropic experiment. The company’s efforts should be the subject of applause, not scorn.