photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

Feed the Communities. Feed the Soul.

Several months ago, I was intrigued by a headline in The Boston Globe: “Is Ron Shaich Out to Lunch?” The story was an interview with Ron Shaich, the CEO of Panera Bread Co., about a crazy idea he was proposing for his company: “Let me pop this idea on you,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about starting a café where we don’t make people pay for their food.” His colleagues thought he wanted to start a soup kitchen.

But he had something different in mind. Shaich was inspired by a segment he had seen on NBC’s Nightly News about the Same Cafe in Denver, Colorado, which serves fresh, healthy, homemade food to anyone who comes. They ask only that customers pay what they can. Shaich realized that concept – which treats everyone with dignity and creates community – could be scaled by applying the business techniques that made Panera Bread cafés successful.

He created a model that became the unique, pay-what-you-can Panera Cares cafés, first in Clayton, Missouri, and then in two other locations in Dearborn, Michigan, and Portland, Oregon. The idea behind this venture: trust people; they’ll often surprise you.

Shaich spoke at the 2010 TEDx St. Louis Conference shortly after opening the first Panera Cares. He explains his concept not only for the cafés, but also for the emphasis on our shared responsibility to each other as underpinning our humanity. He calls on other large US companies to apply their expertise to social problems – food distribution, home foreclosure, renewable energy.

His speech is inspiring, even exciting, for those of us in the Catholic Charities network who are searching for new models to reduce poverty in America.

While Panera works to find a model that can be self-sustaining across a national network, local community efforts continue to pop up.

In October, rock musician Jon Bon Jovi opened Soul Kitchen in his hometown of Red Bank, New Jersey. Red Bank is known as a high-end shopping mecca, but, on the other side of the train tracks that divide the town, 1 in 10 residents live below the poverty level. Bon Jovi’s idea for Soul Kitchen is that diners who can afford leave a donation of $20 to cover their meal and a stranger’s. Those who can’t pay earn their meal by working at the restaurant or in the community. Bon Jovi calls Soul Kitchen “the hottest café in all of New Jersey.”

Soon, we will be sharing food around the Thanksgiving table with our friends and family.  That feeling of community and fellowship is the experience these cafés are trying to replicate but, this time, by widening the circle. Watch the videos. Give them some thought. Maybe while you are sitting at one of these cafes. If you are inspired, share your ideas with us – maybe the next big idea will begin right here.