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Panera Cares Café stirs up Lincoln Park community

By Gabriel Charles Tyler
On November 4, 2012


The logo of a woman with flowing hair, holding a loaf of bread in her arm is spread across the storefront's window. The sounds of jazz and classical instrumentals sneak out of the restaurant each time the door swings open. Freshly baked bread and pastries line the shelves and display space against the warm, orange and rich maroon of the location's wall.

To the average consumer, Lakeview's Panera Cares Café, located at 616 W. Diversey Parkway, feels, looks and sounds just like any other Panera Bread, but it is not. It is even better.

The "Pay-What-You-Can" café, located at the intersection of Diversey and Clark in Chicago's Lakeview community, opened June 21, making it the fourth of its kind in the nation.

As part of Panera's aim to support charitable giving, the restaurant chain opened Panera Cares Cafés featuring no fixed prices, so guests pay what they can. The chain also offers free food and work-for-food programs, where those who cannot pay for a meal can work around the café for an hour to obtain a voucher or they can get day-old pastries and baked goods absolutely free.

A sign above the counter prompts guests to support the non-profit café and support community work reads, "Take what you need. Leave your fair share."

While the menus still feature the "regular" Panera prices, which are labeled "suggested donations," customers are not held to these costs.

In the past few weeks, the Panera Cares Café has received mixed speculation from doubters who feel the idea is just a tax-cut move for Panera. Lakeview residents are also annoyed by the sort of people attracted to the location.

Some Lakeview residents have tried attributing the reported increase in crime in the area to the presence of the Panera Cares Café, and their complaints are utterly nonsensical.

Community leaders have met with the local police to discuss concerns about homeless people in the area of the café. However, the police said there is no way to prove the existence of a correlation between the restaurant's opening and any increase in crime, partially due to the crime in the Lakeview-Lincoln Park area being negligible compared to other parts of the city.

While I can understand someone's annoyance with homeless people and the fear of being harassed for money, I cannot believe anyone would be against the opening of a new restaurant, especially one like Panera Cares Café, which seeks to use shared social responsibility as a means of directly helping the community through hunger relief.

We treat homeless people and the less fortunate like the Bubonic plague. How many times have you avoided making contact with the homeless guy on the corner or acted as if you did not hear the person on the train pleading for a little change? Trust me, I'm not acting holier than you - I know I have done these things plenty of times.

However, the reality is that these people did not become homeless overnight; in many cases, homelessness is a direct result of disenfranchisement and other factors that may steer a person adrift.

The issue of homelessness and the reality of hunger are not as black and white as we would like it to be. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one in six Americans lives in a "food insecure" household.

The recession hit many American citizens and families hard, and for the first time in many of our lives, we were on the edge facing tough times. Since the recession in 2008, things have gotten better for some, but have not for others. The reality is that many Americans are still struggling, and in highly populated city like Chicago, that number is at a greater degree. It is our jobs to combat this statistic, and what better way to do that than a restaurant like Panera Cares.

The Lakeview community is perfect for a pay-what-you-can styled restaurant - there are many affluent people who can afford to pay a little extra, supporting the café, and there are people, such as the homeless people in the area, whose days can be made better by a free meal. To those who are against Panera Cares or are annoyed by the needy people it reportedly attracts, here is a solution: put yourself in their shoes. Hard times do not discriminate - it could be you.

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