To the casual observer it looked like any other Panera Bread restaurant. Same menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and a case full of bread and pastries. Same décor. Same friendly staff.
Timing Is a Key
Shaich’s parents instilled his philanthropic nature. “They taught it was my responsibility to give back to my community, my society and my country.” The kid who couldn’t sing or dance realized in college while operating a nonprofit convenience store that business and the problem-solving skills it requires could be his creative outlet and a method for change.
He cofounded Panera, which has donated millions to charities, and for more than 25 years served as its CEO. About a year ago the happily married father of two contemplated a life change. “I started talking about leaving the CEO post because as I look back on life I want to feel like I did things I respect,” he says. “I’m not retiring, but transitioning — keeping one foot in Panera [as executive chairman of the board] while utilizing the things I’ve learned and the skills I’m good at in other ways.”
It wasn’t an easy step. “When you’re the founder of a $2.8 billion brand with 50,000 employees the world revolves around you,” he admits. “I needed to find a way to make a difference and go back to the struggle of building something.” For Shaich this transition is akin to a trapeze artist who has released one bar and hasn’t yet grasped the second one. “You have to stay in the neutral zone for a moment. It’s exciting and, at the same time, terrifying.”
As it is for an aerialist, the challenge is perfect timing. In shaky economic times, are people willing to buy in, or will the freeloaders win out? Shaich promises to give the concept as long as it takes to see whether it works. Success would lead to a national model, called Panera Cares, that is self-sustaining — meaning it generates enough revenue to cover food, labor, rent and other normal expenses — and can be reproduced. The cafés might even extend their reach into a community by providing on-the-job training for at-risk youth.
As for leaving his CEO job? “Having watched my parents pass away, I realized I needed to take a risk,” Shaich says. “I didn’t do it to do less, but to do more.”
Laura Daily is a writer in Denver.