After we got back to the Tri-Cities following 10 days of travel in Canada and Montana, including a few days of helping a church planter friend in Calgary, my mom and I spent one night in my apartment, visited a few of my local friends, and got back in the car to go to Portland. The weather forecast in the Columbia River Gorge said there would be sun over the next couple of days, so we decided to see the gorge, walk to a couple of waterfalls, and do some city-ish things in Portland.
It was, indeed, sunny the day we drove through the gorge. But Portland lived up to its rainy reputation the day we had planned to visit the rose garden and arboretum. No worries, we made a chilly day of it, and my mom got her rose garden fix (I think she took a photo of every flower we passed, and that was a lot).
When it was time for lunch, I defaulted to my normal tactic when I don’t know where to eat in a new town: I typed “Panera Bread” into my GPS. Good bread, good soup, good coffee, free wi-fi — it’s my go-to food option when I’m on the road and need to sit for a while.
We followed Louise’s directions (yes, I call my GPS Louise, or sometimes Weezie) and arrived at a Panera that shared a parking lot with Trader Joe’s (my serendipitous first time to visit this much beloved grocery store, but that’s a different story). When we walked up to the door, we noticed that the sign said Panera Cares, rather than Panera Bread. And when we got in line to order, we were greeted by a girl whose job is to instruct Panera Cares patrons as to the differences between this Panera and the traditional kind.
She told us that it’s a nonprofit “community cafe,” and rather than paying a set price for your order, you can give a suggested donation for your food and beverages. Anyone can eat at the cafe with or without paying, and if you can pay, they ask that you do — and that you also give anything over the suggested donation that you care to give. Another option is to volunteer an hour for your meal.
I’d never heard of Panera Cares before this trip, but apparently they were in the news when they first opened. “I thought it was kind of like a soup kitchen,” my cousin commented when I posted on my sister (the community nutritionist)’s Facebook. I guess it sort of was, but it was more than that. It wasn’t just people coming in off the street to eat for free. Yes, the guys in line behind me had matted dreadlocks and I couldn’t tell if their skin was dirty or tanned. But quite a few of the other lunch eaters looked like business folks in for their lunch break, and the glass jars that took the place of cash registers were full of ones, fives, tens, and twenties. Clearly, more people came here than those who ate for free.
I really loved the concept of Panera Cares for a couple of reasons. First, there was a mingling of regular paying Panera customers and those who came to eat for free. Now, I’m not saying that I saw a combination of the two sitting at tables and chatting. But the cafe was packed out, like any other Panera I’ve been to at noon. And it was a pretty good mix of both types of eaters. Something about that just seems right.
Second, I love that people who don’t get regular meals can come in to Panera and get fresh, yummy food that other people would pay $7 or $8 a meal for. They weren’t getting leftovers. They weren’t getting one option. They could order anything off the entire menu. If someone doesn’t like soup, he can get a sandwich — and choose the type of bread it comes on. I’m not advocating for people to eat for free with numerous choices for every meal, any more than I think I should eat at Panera every meal. But I like that Panera is giving people dignity through letting them make that choice when they come in to their cafe.