Fullerton: Panera Cares Reaching Out to Lakeview

Fullerton IconBy Lauren Allen and Haley BeMiller
The Red Line Project

Posted: Monday, Nov. 19, 2012

Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood has joined a growing movement to help those in need with a Panera Cares café at the corner of Clark Street and Diversey Parkway.

Panera Cares is a nonprofit community café based on the principles of providing food and security for people in need. Board members met in 2009 to discuss the hunger issues many American families face and wanted to do something to show that their company cares. A year later, the first Panera Cares café opened in Clayton, Mo. Chicago’s Lakeview location was the fourth to open this past June.

Assistant Manager Bob Zykan said that Panera as a company is “founded on a base of regulars” and has a history of connecting with its customers. All of the restaurant's meals are paid for in donations determined by the customer, which helps those in need in the community.

“Every single person that we take their order, we really truly take their name and try to impact them not just by feeding them, but truly building a relationship with them,” he said. “That’s not just at these cafes – that’s a Panera Bread foundation.”

Robert Huff has come to this Panera location for three years to buy his morning coffee, and the transformation into a Panera Cares didn’t stop him. He said he believes people in Chicago need this kind of help, especially as winter approaches.

“It’s helping a lot of people that don’t have nothing to eat,” he said. “I wish the city would open up more things like this for the people. Why not? People out here are starving. They have nothing to eat, nowhere to go, or nothing."

Panera Cares Photo
Panera Cares opened in Chicago’s Lakeview community on June 21. (Photo by Haley BeMiller)

According to Zykan, the restaurant serves anywhere from 800 to 1,000 people Sunday through Thursday and sees up to 1,200 people on Fridays and Saturdays. Panera Cares cafés are typically in neighborhoods that are easily accessible via walking or public transportation and have a mix of both residential and business establishments.

“We try to put these in an economically diverse area,” he said, “one where there are people that live there that have the capability of helping somebody else, and also those that live in the community that may need a little bit of a hand up.”

Panera Cares donation boxZykan said each menu item has a suggested amount, and people either meet that amount or simply pay what they can. Patrons who can afford it are also encouraged to donate extra to help the cause.

Another option for those who can’t pay the full amount is volunteering. Zykan said this policy was not part of the original vision, but it was implemented as a “creative solution” for people who wanted to contribute a little more.

“There were some people that did not just want to take a meal,” he said. “They wanted an opportunity to earn a meal.”

Photo: Patrons can either donate with a credit card or put cash into the café’s donation box. (Photo by Haley BeMiller)

Panera Cares makes it known that it is not a handout, but simply offering a helping hand to people who need it. Zykan said the Panera staff teaches volunteers basic skills for entry-level positions that also allow them to contribute to the café. Most commonly, volunteers are trained as dining hosts, where they practice clearing tables and customer service.

“It’s a motivational opportunity,” he said.

To the employees, the benefits Panera Cares is having on the Lakeview community can’t be unseen. Zykan said some volunteers have reached outside the café to help clean up litter and beautify areas that residents have been concerned with. Eventually, the Lakeview location wants to follow in the steps of other Panera Cares cafés and implement a job training program for the community.

“We’ve only kind of scratched the surface of the possibilities of how this café can truly benefit the neighborhood in multiple facets,”  he said.

Cedric Lee, a café ambassador whose job it is to explain the café’s policy to newcomers, said Lakeview is the most ideal place for Panera Cares in Chicago. As a former Panera employee with a history of helping the homeless, he believes Panera Cares is an inspiring way to give back to others.

“The other day, one guy that was volunteering with us who happened to be homeless at the time came in and gave me a ticket to come to the restaurant that he’s now working at because he said he was inspired by Panera Cares.”

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