Panera: A place where the questions are baked-in

Panera’s Ron Shaich on how questioning can fuel a business and clarify a mission

Ron Schaich A More Beautiful QuestionI’ve always enjoyed going to Panera Bread but I like the chain even better now that I’ve had a chance to speak with the man who runs it, Ron Shaich. He is a big believer in the power of questioning. In fact, Shaich recently posted a LinkedIn piece, which I recommend, titled “Want a Better Answer? Ask a Better Question.”  In it, he talks about how Panera in its present form came into being after Shaich’s management team at Au Bon Pain (Panera’s predecessor) asked “a series of forward-leaning questions: What will the world look like in the next five years? What are the long-term trends that are shaping consumers’ desires? And how do we align ourselves with those trends?

That questioning helped produce a new vision and, eventually, a whole new company. To this day, questioning is central to everything Shaich does at Panera. I had an opportunity to interview him for the book and here are a few comments he shared:

“What you’re writing about is so fundamental but it isn’t talked about nearly enough,” Shaich told me. “If we ask, Why do questions matter?, It’s because everything is rooted in learning. And if learning is the basis of everything, well, the means to that learning is a question.”

“So many people I know fail because they immediately jump to a conclusion when they should be asking a question,” Shaich added. “Here’s an example: You hire a new employee, and they show up for the first day of work and what do they do? They want to impress the person who hired them and convince that person they made a right decision. So they do whatever they did in their last job. That’s what they know.

“And that is the antithesis of what you want in a new employee. Because what you want with a new employee or team member—at least, what I want them to do—is come in and spend some time trying understanding us. And figure out what’s needed and wanted in this situation. So come here and try to learn; try to figure out, what are the priorities here? What do they care about? They should be starting out with questions.”

“I want to put our bodies on the line”

I talked to Shaich at length about Panera Cares, an initiative to open a number of pay-what-you-can cafés that are identical to the chain’s other restaurants, except customers pay what they wish or can afford based on suggested donation amounts. As Shaich explained (and parts of this discussion appeared in my article for Fast Company about “mission questions,” Panera Cares basically started with this beautiful question:

What does the world need most that we are uniquely able to provide?”

Of course, with so much fresh-baked bread in so many outlets, Panera has always been “uniquely able” to provide leftover bread to people in need—and the company has, for years, been a major contributor to community food pantries. “But then we started asking ourselves, What more can we do?” Shaich says. “I felt like, I want to put our bodies on the line.”

What gradually became clear was that Panera was in a position to provide not just bread giveaways but a more complete and dignified eating experience for those dealing with food insecurity. The first Panera Cares café opened about two years ago. Now there are five around the country, serving over a million people (and, for the most part, covering costs, as high donations from some customers tend to balance out lower ones by others). It’s a very worthy program—and it all began with a great question, the kind of question that more business leaders today should be asking.

Find Ron’s blog on entrepreneurship at http://www.ronshaich.com/

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About the Author

Journalist and speaker Warren Berger realized that the majority of successful creatives and entrepreneurs he was interviewing over the years were great questioners. His wondering about "How can we all learn to do what they do?” led to this website and the writing of his latest book, A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts here.

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