"Take what you need. Leave your fair share."

In case you missed this story last week, a local chain restaurant is now operating on a pay-as-you-please model. Panera Bread Company opened their third “Panera Cares” Community Cafe, right here in Portland. Actually, they have been operating the shop for a number of years and recently closed it, then re-opened under the new business model. Hungry? Broke? No problem. Eat up. Flush with cash? Put a few extra dollars in the box.

Amazing! I couldn’t believe this was for real when I first read about it. As uplifting as I found the concept, not everyone shared my view. The article in our local newspaper received dozens of comments online, many along the lines of: “Yuck. Who wants to eat with a bunch of poor people sitting nearby?” (Don’t read the comments unless you seriously want to lose your appetite.)

I’ve never eaten at Panera even though it’s about a mile from home and right next to my local Trader Joe’s. I did some shopping today and then stopped in, at first just to take a look-see. It was early afternoon and there was a steady flow of foot traffic. I poked my head in and a friendly employee standing inside the door asked if I had been in since they re-opened. He gave me a great rundown of how it works, pointed out the “Suggested Donation” signs, and patiently answered my questions about how long he’s been with the company (three years), whether he has health insurance (yes), how people are reacting to the change (mostly very positive). Everyone who came in was getting the spiel. There were a bunch of greeters, all incredibly friendly and helpful.

Kaylee. The sign says "We are a community cafe."

I ordered a cup of soup and stuffed some singles into the “donation box.” Suggested donation, plus a little extra. There’s free wifi and a bunch of people were working on laptops. It looked like most other local places at lunchtime –pretty busy, mostly white, diversity of attire and age. I sat down at one of the empty tables and ate my soup.

Being the nosy person that I am, I really wanted to find out what people thought about this whole community cafe idea. I finished my soup and took a little walk around. A guy sitting in the back had just sat down with a bowl of chili and a slice of bread. I said hi and asked him what he thought. “It worked out for me!” he answered cheerfully. I asked if he knew they had stopped charging fixed prices for the food when he came in. “No,” he said. “I just came in for a roll, and then found out I could get a bowl of chili and some bread for the price of a roll!”

He said he was worried that some people might abuse the situation, and we started a pretty deep conversation about greed and scarcity, and why it is that some people feel that they never have enough. I asked if I could sit down, and wondered why this intelligent and capable looking fellow didn’t have enough money for lunch.

He said his name was Robert and that he had worked for years in construction, security and parking garages. He’s an artist as well, a painter. Unemployed for the past few years, he doesn’t think he’ll ever have a paid job again. “I mean, there’s just no market for me. All I have to offer is labor, and there are a lot of people out there who are younger, faster and stronger than I am.” He spoke with friendly composure but seemed a bit deflated. In between stories, he stirred his chili. I watched it slowly disappear.

He said he’s got it better than a lot of people. “I’m not out on the street. At least I have a roof over my head. And I don’t need much.” He lives with a friend but, without any income, it’s a struggle to keep his truck running and purchase the few things he can’t do without.

We must have talked for about half an hour and I thought of my frozen items from Trader Joe’s, slowly melting in the car. Robert’s spoon dipped into his bowl every few minutes. A cafe employee came by with a tray, offering slices of pastry. “Wow, even dessert!” he exclaimed, as she handed him one on a napkin.

I decided to tell Robert the whole story about my project. I started with my mother, the retirement fund, wanting to change my miserly habits. I told him about giving away a hundred dollars every day in October. He smiled, chuckled, wriggled around a bit in his seat. He asked a few questions. “Wow,” he said. “That must have been amazing.I hope you wrote down people’s reactions.”

“It was amazing,” I said. “It was so amazing that I couldn’t stop!” I told him about the blog, and the hundred hundreds for 2011. I had his full attention. At some point during the story he had scraped the last of the chili from his bowl. I pulled a bill from my pocket and handed it to him. “Oh, wow. Oh, wow!” he said. He crumpled the bill inside a napkin and started to put it in his pocket. “Don’t throw it away by mistake!” I cautioned (so helpful).

“That’s a habit I learned on the street,” he said. He pulled out his wallet and slipped the bill inside. From what I could see, his wallet was otherwise empty. He thanked me a few times and mused about what he would do with the money. “I think I’ll just set this aside for now. This spring I’ll need to insure my truck for another year.”

We shook hands and parted like old friends. By the time I got home there was an email waiting; he was offering me a gift of one of his paintings. Thank you, Robert. May your bowl always be full.

Robert at Panera

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9 Responses to Robert’s Bowl

  1. Renee says:

    Wonderful. Does he have an online portfolio? I’d love to see his work. Always looking for interesting and not outrageously expensive art, you know?

  2. Jill Ginsberg says:

    Hi Renee- Thanks for reading! Robert doesn’t have an online portfolio. Maybe he will comment here and let you know how to get in touch with him. Jill

  3. Pru McDonald says:

    Dear Jill,
    It’s GREAT how you simply follow your nose (guts, instincts) to reach your goal to find the perfect recipient for your C-note. And I follow you like a
    puppy, waiting patiently for my next treat! Pru

  4. DJan says:

    Oh, Jill, you really made me cry with this one. I used to frequent the Panera’s in Boulder when I lived there, and I always liked it. Robert is right: he may never have another regular job again because of the awful situation our country is in. The way out is far enough into the future that some will never stop struggling. I was so fortunate to retire in spring 2008, but my retirement funds are significantly reduced. We have enough but I worry about the Roberts of the world. Thanks for this.

  5. Carrie Sharpe says:

    I love Panera and wish we had one nearby. I had no idea they did such an awesome thing! Good job following your heart to that man!

  6. Jill Ginsberg says:

    Thank you for writing, Carrie! And for all the encouragement.

  7. Alissah Leigh says:

    Poor people are people too, same as rich people.. Except poor people MIGHT not be as judgmental as someone who was borne with a silver spoon to eat with at places poor people cant afford eat..

  8. Alissa B says:

    Jill, what an inspiring blog! I was visiting Portland last week to see my little sister who is volunteering in Americorps and we spotted Panera Cares by the Trader Joe’s! It prompted her to google it and she came across your blog, she says she can’t stop reading all of your wonderful encounters. You are doing a great thing, and you are inspiring us all!

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