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magine walking into a Panera Bread and picking out anything you wanted to eat or drink — then, at the end of the line, instead of handing your money to a cashier, you faced a donation box. What would you do if you knew that some of the money you placed in the box would be used to train at-risk youths or to feed folks lacking funds to feed themselves?
That's what Panera Bread is trying to find out this week in an outside-the-box experiment in St. Louis. It's a concept that has never been tested by a restaurant chain — and that marks a new career for Ron Shaich, who stepped down as Panera's CEO last week. "I'm trying to find out what human nature is all about," says Shaich, 56, who has converted a former Panera-owned restaurant in an urban area of St. Louis into a non-profit restaurant dubbed Saint Louis Bread Company Cares Cafe. (Similar cafes planned outside of the St. Louis area will be called Panera Cares Cafes. Panera was founded in St. Louis and still brands its restaurants there as St. Louis Bread Company.)
Shaich considers the non-profit Panera Foundation to be his next big thing. "My hope is that we can eventually do this in every community where there's a Panera," says the entrepreneur who bought Panera more than two decades ago when it had just 19 locations and grew it to more than 1,400 locations and upwards of $2.8 billion in annual sales. He plans to open two more of the non-profit cafes in two more cities in the next six months, but declined to say where. His goal is hundreds of Panera Cares Cafes around the country. But first, this one has to work.
This particular Saint Louis Bread Company site had been a marginally profitable company-owned restaurant. Shaich was particularly fond of the location because he once lived just down the street — and ate at it often — when he formerly lived in St. Louis. He converted the restaurant into a non-profit and reopened it Sunday. As it turns out, he says, the location's revenue was actually up 20% on opening day vs. the previous Sunday. What's more, says Shaich, who spent Sunday and Monday at the cafe, one-third of those who ate at the restaurant left more than the suggested retail price. Many have warned Shaich that this will fail. He thinks otherwise: "The core of my life has been to make a difference. Now, I'm using my business background to make a difference in the world."