I Have a Bone to Pick With Panera Bread Company

This is awkward, but I have a bone to pick with Panera Bread Company, which along with its franchisees, operates 1,652 bakery-cafes under three different names.

As a cause marketer, what could I possibly have to complain about Panera? The company has a menu full of organic ingredients, including antibiotic-free chicken. Many of their stores give away unsold bread every night to food banks where they operate. The company just launched a new Facebook campaign called Food Chain Reaction that will donate up to 500,000 bowls of their black bean soup to the hungry through Feeding America. And they do all this and are still first rate operators. I’ve never had a bad meal at a Panera.

Moreover, they just launched in Boston their fifth nonprofit Panera Cares Community Café, which would have been called a soup kitchen 20 years ago. Panera Cares Cafes feed people regardless of their ability to pay, although their business model very much requires paying customers.

Panera is a company that truly walks its talk.

So what’s my criticism? How’s this for being a heal? My censure comes after reading a piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about a new effort Panera has launched in its 48 St. Louis area stores whereby their turkey chili, which comes in a bread bowl, is also available to people regardless of your ability to pay, just like at the five Panera Cares Cafes. If you can afford to pay, the suggested price is $5.89, plus tax.

“We felt like there was such power power in this idea,” Kate Antonacci, director of Societal Impact Initiatives told the Post-Dispatch, “and yet it was only manifesting in five communities. We asked ourselves as a company that has 1,600 cafes across the country, is there not a way to take the spirit of Panera Cares and apply it more broadly? We can't convert every cafe to a Panera Cares, so we thought ‘What about just one item?’ And that's how we got to this point.”

Here’s my problem: helping out can be very intoxicating, especially when you’re good at it as Panera is. But as I often say in this space, generous people are no good to causes if they give until they’re broke. Cause marketers need sponsors that are cash cows. That is, companies that have a sustainable business model that can be ‘milked’ regularly.

Before Panera, everybody’s poster-child for progressive corporate social responsibility was Timberland, the shoe and apparel company.

But after riding high through much of the 1980s and 1990s, Timberland’s product line grew a little stale in the double-aughts. Growth stalled. Facing rising material costs and lower profit margins, Timberland sold itself to VF in 2011 for $2 billion.    

Cause marketing and corporate social responsibility provide a kind of insurance effect to companies that practice it. But it’s not the kind of insurance that writes companies a check after a bad year or two.

So, my friends at Panera, never forget that if your company and business model aren’t sustainable, then your generous cause marketing can’t be sustained.

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