The Next Right Thing

Panera BreadWhen I hear the words “Customer Service” these days the first thing that comes to mind is the nightmare experiences of recent years. The hours on hold, the “I-could-really-give-a-rat’s-ass-about-your-silly-problem” attitude of whatever uncaring person stood between you and an acceptable experience. Just this morning I discovered I was absolutely lied to by a sales agent when he told me he did something on an order when in fact he most certainly had not. His co-worker got the impact of my displeasure. Nobody seems to want to do the next right thing anymore.

On occasion you hear these stories about a company that steps up, goes beyond customer service and does extraordinary things. Today that company is Panera Bread.

So here’s the story.

Panera Bread had an idea. It was bold, it was unheard of in this era of corporate greed and to be successful it depended solely on one thing. Would the customer do the next right thing?

The concept is their menu would not list prices, only suggested donations.  There would be no cashiers, no checks, no haggling over pricing. The customer would drop their money into donation bins at the exit.

The concept is everyone would pay what they can afford. Conceivably that mean the well-to-do would drop in more than the suggested amount. They might, without batting an eye, drop in $100 bill for a $10 sandwich and a glass of ice tea. Those that are down on their luck and just need a meal could eat free, if that’s the had they are dealt.

Panera Bread

By Tim A. Parker for USA TODAY -- A sign in the Panera Cares Cafe in Clayton, Mo., at its opening in 2010 sends the message..

In many ways, “it was a test of humanity,” says Ron Shaich, president of the Panera Bread Foundation and executive chairman of Panera Bread company. “We didn’t know if people would help each other or take advantage.”

I’m the first to tell you I would have given an operation like this practically zero chance of success. This it’s all about me society doesn’t seem to embrace charity or responsibility as generations past.

A year after lauching the test program Panera plans to branch out to more locations in other cities, adding to a growing number of pay-what-you-can cafes being opened around the country by churches, community groups and other benefactors.

“To put it simply, these are nonprofit community cafs of shared responsibility,” Shaich says. “They will only survive and self-sustain if people in those communities do their part.”

“We try to build relationships with people,” says Colleen Kincaid, who manages the cafe in Clayton, Mo. “We rely on those repeat customers — people getting coffee on the way to work or coming in for dinner with their families. In order for this to work, people have to do the right thing,” she said.

“You give what you have, and if you have a little bit of extra change, you might toss it in. It’s hard to ask in a society where we’re more used to taking.”

To discourage abuse of the system, people are asked to take only one free meal per day.

“If they come in a couple of times a week, we ask that they volunteer,” Kincaide says. “It helps them not feel like they’re taking advantage.”

A sign hanging in the cafe reads, “We are not about a handout. We are about a hand up for those who really need it.”

Estimates run that about 20% of customers pay more, 20% pay less or none, and 60% stick to the suggested price.

Customers like Jae Komnenic, 39, of Dearborn, Mich. praise the cafe’s work.

“They help support the community. That’s the No. 1 reason I come here,” she says. “The employees are also superb. They’re all so nice to everyone. … We always pay more when we come here to help support people who need it.”

To customer Eric Falkiewicz, 44, also of Dearborn, the cafe is a safe and comfortable place to study, meet people and — occasionally — eat when he doesn’t have much money.

“I’m a full-time student, I don’t have a job. … Sometimes I can pay full price, and sometimes I can’t. It’s nice to know you can come somewhere like this and they don’t judge you. I’m very grateful for this place.”

I’m encouraged when I see mustard seeds of hope being planted in these troubled times. Perhaps the day will come when charity replaces greed and poverty is a thing of the past.

I still believe in a place called Hope, a place called America.

— BILL CLINTON, speech at Democratic National Convention, August 29, 1996[/box]

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