Inspirational Peformances

By Sustainability 
In: Sustainability

I was at the Sustainable Brands 2011 Conference in Monterey last week (that’s #sb11 for those playing along on Twitter) where leading executives from around the world gathered to share ideas and experiences of how to drive corporate change that provide shared economic, environmental and social value.

I was there to present, with noted author and sustainability guru Gil Friend,  about how companies can make the business case for sustainability programs.  I love this conference because each year I come away with inspiration from the presentations. I hope you find story of Panera’s Pay-What-You-Can program – which focuses on the social aspect of sustainability — as inspirational as the 750 conference attendees who rose to their feet cheering.

Panera Bread’s founder Ronald Shaich told the story of how his bakery-café company found that donating $50,000,000 worth of unsold goods to community organizations each year just wasn’t good enough. Last year Ronald convinced the leaders of his publicly traded company to set up a non-profit “pay-what-you-can” restaurant called Panera Cares Community Café.

The idea is to help to feed the needy and raise money for charitable work; here’s how it works: The Panera Cares Café looks just like the rest of the other 1,500 cafés except there are no prices on the menu. When a customer orders food at the counter they are told the “suggested donation” amount and the rest it up to the individual.

  • If you have the money to pay full price for the meal — you slip into the donation box.
  • If you’re feeling generous and want to make a contribution to the charitable foundation – you put more than suggested amount in the in the box.
  • If you’re down on your luck — put in what you can or pay nothing at all.

On average, 60% of customers pay the suggested amount, 20% pay more, and 20% are taking advantage of getting good discounted or free healthy food in an environment where they feel respected. In fact, some of the people who can’t pay volunteer to work in the café.

The idea came from Ronald’s experience working in soup kitchens. He and his family regularly helped out and noticed that everyone was depressed. It wasn’t just that they had serious life challenges and were hungry; the people at the soup kitchen were forced to wait in line outside to eat the same lousy food we were served in 3rd-grade school lunches. Heads hung low, and people felt ashamed to ask for help.

Ronald decided he could do better.  His company now provides an environment where needy people are served and respected. The other great benefit is that people of means now come into contact with those in need resulting in greater awareness of hunger issues.

There are now three Panera Cares Cafés and they plan to open a new one every three to four months. They’re non-profits, not charities, and so far they’re all paying for themselves – and a little more. The excess donations are currently being used for job training local youth in at-risk neighborhoods.

Many people equate sustainability to being “green.” When I first wrote about what sustainability means, we talked about how, at Kendall-Jackson, we take the broader view of sustainability, defined by the Triple Bottom Line: “the planning and activity that takes into account the long-term maintenance and well-being of the environmental, social and economic demands of the world around us.”

As we further develop the social aspect of our sustainability program it’s inspiring to read about companies like Panera. We currently donate annually to over to over 40 community organizations largely focused on the health and well-being of children and women. I’m looking forward to later this year when we finish developing our employee volunteerism program and can tell you about how we’re getting our boots on the ground in the community to make a difference and hopefully inspire others to do the same.