Are Panera’s Pay-What-You-Want Cafés Wholesome, or Just More Corporate PR?

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Ignore the resemblance to Dick Cheney. Photo: CNN

A few months ago, we shared the heartwarming story of Au Bon Pain founder and Panera CEO Ron Shaich, who's experimenting with pay-what-you-can cafés. (There's currently a "Panera Cares" in St. Louis; two more just popped up in Michigan and Oregon.) Now the Boston Globe's asking: Is Ron Shaich out to lunch? We think the question isn't so much is he out to lunch as it is, Is he just one more ruthless CEO in search of some good PR? The breakdown, straight ahead.

Really, at first blush, Panera breaking into the soup kitchen market sounds as smarmy as Starbucks trying to sell original music mixes, except Panera's exploiting hungry people, not people hungry for horrifically bland music.

So is Panera the new corporate soup-kitchen alternative? We're hoping not, and Shaich's unusual rsum makes it seem like he might not be an evil corporate titan after all. Let's take a look and rank him on his quirky characteristics, shall we?

He's an outsider: He and a friend decided to open their own convenience store after being tossed from a Store 24 owing to terse words with "overzealous" security. +1 wholesome point

His life is his work: "[Au Bon Pain] was the source of most of his important adult relationships, his major life lessons, and his identity." +1 CEO point

He's richer than hell: Shaich made $1.5 million in salary and bonuses in 2009 and received total compensation worth $3.3 million. +1 CEO point

He's cautiously hedonistic: "He is building a house in Antigua, where hes gone almost every Christmas for 20 years to bodysurf, sit on the beach, and think about work." +1 CEO point

He went to Harvard Business School. But maybe just to, like, learn something, not get a job: "What he wanted was to learn more about how to solve problems and create businesses." Tough call: even

He's blunt: When touring restaurants, he asks customers, What are we doing thats stupid? +1 wholesome point

He wants employees to get chummy with their cubemates: Panera doesnt have company meetings; it has family reunions." +1 wholesome point

According to our careful calculations, the guy's at least as good as he is evil. And after so much unsavory news from Taco Bell and Chick-Fil-A, we're happy to read a feel-good chain story for a change. One note, though, before you pay (full price) for Panera's Cuban chicken panini. From the piece: "In front of him is a You Pick Two special; hes picked the new All-Natural Steak Chili With Cornbread and the Cuban Chicken Panini. He also has a cookie. During a two-hour interview, the slightly built, bald Shaich will eat a few spoonfuls of chili and ignore the sandwich."

Hmmm, so maybe there's more than one reason he wants to give food away.

Is Ron Shaich Out to Lunch? [Globe]

Earlier: Panera Founder Heartened by Insane Pay-What-You-Can Experiment