After seemingly endless complaints at neighborhood association meetings and online, Panera Cares representatives made an appearance in Lake View Monday night to address residents’ questions about the new business, specifically about safety and potential tax loopholes.
Sitting at 616 W. Diversey Pkwy, Panera Cares is one of four new non-profit versions of the popular restaurant chain Panera Bread in the nation. However, Panera Cares allows customers to only pay what they can, and if they don’t have any money, they can do things like sweeping floors to receive a free meal.
Panera officials attended a South East Lake View Neighbors meeting Monday where residents and reporters asked the group questions. And when confronted with internet rumors that the company was looking to transition its restaurants to non-profits to reap tax benefits, Panera Bread Area Director Jeff Harman said this is the first time Panera has been confronted with these rumors.
“Tax questions have not come up in other locations,” Harman said. “…An email I received earlier was the first instance that I was confronted about tax. I can assure you there is no elaborate plan (to exploit tax loopholes). Panera Cares is a non-profit foundation. But that’s about all the information I have about tax at this time.”
Harman said he’d return with more detail about taxes at the group’s next meeting.
“We want to try to be a good neighbor, and part of that is getting out in the community to get in front of this.”
And while some were concerned with tax issues, many other residents had questions about neighborhood safety. Store Manager Devin Mitchell said the store has only been active as non-profit for just four months, so she doesn’t have any data about a potential uptick in crime surrounding the restaurant. Police also say they haven’t noticed a trend in reports.
However, Panera did have data about the type of customers that visit the store. Bob Kykan, an employee who has managed three of the four Panera Cares locations in the nation, says customer trends are relatively the same at all four stores. About 20 percent of patrons pay more than the cost of their meal, 60 percent pay the normal rate and the remaining 20 percent pays less than the cost of their meal.
And according to Kykan, Panera Cares is taking neighborhood safety and cleanliness seriously after complaints started to surface.
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“A few of us managers over the past month since attending the CAPS meeting have started to do neighborhood walks,” Kykan said. “So on my walk, I cover certain blocks that people have expressed concern in… We go all the way down Diversy toward the lake, and two blocks north and south of Diversey. And we go down Clark and Broadway two blocks in each way to look for patrons who are aggressively panhandling.”
Kykan said the managers and volunteers also pick up litter lining the streets during their walks. The neighborhood patrols are in combination with increased number of security cameras in the store and new combination locks on bathroom doors to reduce security threats at the restaurant.
“We’re trying to get in front of this,” Harman said. “We want to try to be a good neighbor, and part of that is getting out in the community to get in front of this.”
The group says residents with concerns can report them via the Panera Cares website.