Panera Cares Cafe stays afloat with spare change, kindness

Photo by Sherri Kolade

Panera Cares cashier Marcus Regan looks over the restaurant Feb. 23 at the Panera Cares Cafe Dearborn location.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — Dishes softly clink as warm laughter and chatter spill out from patrons’ restaurant booths as students, businessmen and soccer moms digest their food and conversation in between bites of soups and sandwiches.

Welcome to Dearborn Panera Cares Café where patrons donate what they can for a meal. A year after its inception in November 2010, Panera Cares Café, 22208 Michigan Ave., has succeeded in their goals: not using a cash register, only accepting donations with a suggested-price menu; and using a portion of their earnings for non-profit programs.

Colleen Kincaid, Dearborn Panera Cares Café manager, said even though the café’s income level is about the same, they are beginning to see growth.

“Our customers are starting to understand that we really need their contributions to be able to help people that are less fortunate,” Kincaid said, adding that “we make money the same way a regular restaurant would.”

Kincaid estimates that about 60 percent of patrons leave the suggested amount for their orders, about 20 percent give less or nothing and 20 percent give more than the suggested donation.

“It is really just us relying on the community to do the right thing to pay for what their meal is worth,” she said.

The the restaurant uses a donations policy: if someone is unable to pay for their food the first few times, Panera will foot the bill. If it becomes a habit, Panera will ask that person to volunteer in exchange for their order.

“They can come in and volunteer for an hour where they basically earn the right to that free meal,” Kincaid said. “We hope that if they have the means they decide to do the right thing and just go ahead and pay for their food. If they are truly someone that is in need they can share their meal with us.”

The inside of Panera’s restaurant has a home-like atmosphere that draws in crowds of people from all walks of life, income brackets and experiences.

Regular customers like Inkster-resident Lyle Hill who sat down one afternoon at a window seat with a hot sandwich and cold drink, among other treats in a bag, said he likes the restaurant’s pay-what-you-can philosophy.

“Certain times of the month it is really good to come here,” Hill said after his lunch. “Sometimes you don’t have any money but you can still get a meal.”

Hill, who is unemployed, also said the café treats paying or non-paying customers the same.

“They treat you so nice and hospitable even if you don’t have a donation to give. It is just a blessing. It is not many places like this that give you quality of food that they will give you … instead of somebody looking down on you just serving you. They do it so lovely, so kindly … it helps.”

There are three Panera Cares Cafés in the United States. The two other locations are in St. Louis., and Portland and Clayton, Ore.

Kincaid said more Panera Cares Cafes are in the works to open up in Boston and Chicago this year.

The original idea for a Panera Cares Café based in the St. Louis Bread Co. started in St. Louis two and a half years ago.

“I think we are starting to grow,” she said. “When we first opened we had that honeymoon phase where everybody is excited about it and they want to find out what it is about and just recently we have gotten people a lot more interested.”

The volunteer program hopes to give the patrons a sense of accomplishment.

“(It) makes them feel like they are not just taking advantage but they are part of society and contributing to society too.”

The Dearborn outlet plans on starting an at-risk-youth internship program soon that helps disadvantaged young people (ages 16 to 23) receive voluntary training and learn what it is like to be in a professional, work-oriented setting.

“They can learn those acquired job skills, learn how to act appropriately, start to feel comfortable in their own skin relating to other people,” Kincaid added.

The only thing Panera needs is a partner, and is looking at local high schools or non-profit groups.

“I know there are some non-profits who have shown interest,” Kincaid said.

Cashier and Dearborn resident Marcus Regan said he likes working at the cafe because it gives him the chance to impact people’s lives.

“People come into the café and sometimes they have a need so we get to interact with them directly and … it is really fulfilling.” Regan said, adding somee customers are not as comfortable talking about their problems.

“You are still able to help them even without knowing it. Being able to do that is great.”

(Sherri Kolade can be reached at