Why caring for your customers is good for business

Simon Mainwaring / Brands / 8 years ago

Panera Cares Cafe in Dearborn, MI.

I wanted to share with you an inspiring example of how a corporation is reaching out to its customers in a meaningful way. The brand in question is called Panera Cares Café. As you walk inside the store, everything looks exactly the same as every one of the other Panera Bread restaurants across the United States except one thing is missing – a cash register.

Instead, Panera has chosen to manage a number of these Panera Cares Cafes out of the corporate foundation. So instead of a cash register, you’ll see a donation box where customers are invited to pay what they think is fair value given their financial situation at that time. As the former Panera co-founder, Ron Shaich, explains, “If you’ve got a few extra bucks, the right thing is to leave it. If you’re feeling pressure, you can take a discount. If you’ve got nothing, you’re free to enjoy your meal with dignity.”

Panera opened up the first one of these Restaurants of Shared Responsibility in a suburb of St. Louis in May, 2010. This business model is as strategic as it is well intended. Sights for the cafes are chosen due to their mix of affluent professionals and homeless families so that the concept is mutually beneficial. What’s more, the powerful humanizing effect this has on their brand resonates loudly with all their customers.

What’s extra smart about this strategy is its self-sustaining design. The profits generated by the cafes are going to be channeled into job training for disadvantaged youth, while any shortfalls are made up by the generous donations of the more affluent clientele.

Even if the Panera Cares Cafes come out behind financially in the short term, the brand itself will come out way ahead. Such a powerful demonstration of concern for the well- being of the entire community in the way it engages both affluent and less affluent customers is simply smart business that contributes to meaningful change. What it demonstrates is a commitment to the well being of society as a whole over the mlong-term rather than a one-off marketing strategy designed to merely benefit the bottom line.

Panera Cares Café is a wonderful idea that deserves our support in principal and practice. It is also an inspiring example of a We First approach to marketing and our world. Let’s hope more brands follow their example and build healthy communities by offering them great food and the opportunity to take care of each other.

Do you think more companies should take a greater responsibility for the less fortunate in society? What other examples have you found?


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  1. Avatar Dev says:

    Thanks for the highlight of this wonderful cafe, Simon. I’m working with a non-profit social enterprise cafe at the moment, in Sydney, that does some wonderful things for community through arts, music and social support for the marginalised, including disadvantaged youth. I do think more companies can learn a lot from the ethos behind this case, but I also think it’s important to practice restraint and not assume that this model can work for everyone.

    One thing I’ve learned from my experience working with the cafe is that, fortunately or unfortunately, if a social enterprise is amidst other businesses, it still has to compete with them in a capitalist economy, and there are plenty of people conditioned by that economy to take advantage of unmoderated generosity.

    So it does make me wonder how much of an exceptional case the success of this model is for Panera, and the value of how you say “Even if the Panera Cares Cafes come out behind financially in the short term, the brand itself will come out way ahead.”

    Having said that, I’m still very inspired to think about this further, and see how far it could be taken!

    1. Thanks and I hear you Dev. Human nature is a funny thing. I think the Panera
      effort is aided by the fact that their company has 1300 stores and can
      support these cafes even if some people abuse the honor system. The way
      capitalism is being practiced in much of the world does make it hard. Even
      if we want to help on a personal level popular behavior does not support
      that. That said, the only way ahead is thrugh our example. Congrats on what
      you’re doing. More companies are doing good for sure. simon