Panera Brands is set to go public, and Danny Meyer is getting a piece of the bread. Through an acquisition group tied to Union Square Hospitality Group, the parent company of Meyer’s family of restaurants, Meyer and his company will become “a cornerstone partner with Panera Brands,” according to Business Wire. Meyer himself will be named lead independent director of Panera Brands’ board, a title that — upon completion of the chain’s previously announced IPO — suggests Meyer will be actively involved with decisions informing the company’s future.
That means that Meyer will exert his influence on Panera Bread, a fast-casual restaurant with more than 2,000 locations and a ferocious fanbase for its broccoli and cheddar soup and generally “wholesome” on-the-go options. The world of fast food is not new to Meyer — in addition to his not-so-small army of upscale establishments, he’s also the founder of the enormously popular Shake Shack burger chain, which famously offers a higher-quality-than-average fast-food burger and other dishes that gesture to local ingredients. But perhaps most intriguing is that the involvement of Meyer, who’s famous for promoting a model of “enlightened hospitality” — aka putting the health and wellbeing of workers alongside that of customers — in a chain as large as Panera has the potential to raise the bar for worker treatment in a sector of the restaurant industry where wages are low and workers are often treated as disposable.
When Shake Shack filed for its own IPO in 2014, the company made clear that among its strategies for growing the business were paying its staff above minimum wage, so as to “attract a higher caliber employee,” which, in turn, “translates directly to better guest service.” Recently, in the face of an ongoing labor shortage during the pandemic, Meyer called for a $15 minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers. “I don’t know that I’ve seen anything that is more in our self interest as a business,” he said, according to Bloomberg. In a statement to Business Wire, Meyer says that Panera demonstrates that “shareholder success is dependent on and driven by an employee-first stakeholder culture.” He also notes that the brand “meets our investment criteria” in part because it’s a “market leader whose greatest strength is its talent and heart; a company where people love to work and with which customers, suppliers and partners love doing business.”
Meyer’s philosophies about hospitality have in large part acted as the bellwether for the restaurant industry. He spearheaded the movement to include a tip in the cost of a meal — a policy that his restaurants have since abandoned, but initially saw many restaurants following suit across the country. At a chain like Shake Shack or Panera — as opposed to Meyer’s other restaurants, the sorts of places where the tip on a $425 bottle of champagne or a $145 dry-aged ribeye could seriously impact the wages a worker takes home — enlightened hospitality should also do more than provide a livable wage; it should address and improve upon the realities of working in fast- and fast-casual restaurants
But in the context of a fast food restaurant, Meyer’s hospitality ethos feels a little murky. Much of his philosophy has to do with hiring workers who find so much joy in serving others that they experience a sense of fulfillment in their work, all while creating unforgettable memories for diners. That’s one thing against the backdrop of a fine dining restaurant — where a hefty tip was for a time included in the cost of each dish at Meyer’s restaurants, and where serious tipping now has the power to create a literal payoff for those workers — but it’s another in fast food, an industry where where wages are generally low, and workers may not have their sights set on staying longterm. Of course no job is just about money, but it’s unfair and unrealistic to think workers in any sector of the restaurant industry will go above and beyond to create special experiences for diners simply because that’s a central philosophy of the company they work for. It’s great to create an environment where people are genuinely happy to be working, the space is clean, and everyone feels safe. That’s no small achievement, especially when so many fast food restaurants are sites of harassment for workers. But beyond the bare minimum of worker safety, what does it look like for Shake Shack — or soon, Panera — to truly be, as Meyer puts it, “employee-first” workplaces?
There’s also a big difference between building something from the ground up — as Meyer did in the case of Shake Shack and his many other restaurants — and becoming involved with an already-established operation like Panera. While Meyer’s hospitality philosophy, crystallized in his 2006 bestselling book Setting the Table, is applauded by many, some also see him as a godfather of the “customer is always right” approach that has put so many restaurant workers in the position of having to cater to the wants and needs of entitled and sometimes even abusive customers, without the agency to change their situations or stand up for themselves in the moment. Of course, Meyer isn’t responsible for any one run-in, and his philosophy doesn’t intend to put workers in harm’s way — but he’s ushered in a certain standard that restaurateurs and restaurant workers alike are questioning as the industry continues to face a reckoning surrounding worker treatment and harassment. In an op-ed for Food & Wine, the restaurant activist John deBary writes that “the worldview presented in Setting the Table represents a fantastic North Star, but like the star, it is unattainable as an actual destination, and it is unfair to act otherwise… for people looking to educate themselves on the realities of working in restaurants, it’s important to look past the rosy picture Setting the Table paints and to question the bend-over-backwards mentality it champions. It might be great for the customer, but it comes at a real cost to the employee — a cost that is too high.”
Meyer has consistently proved that he knows exactly how to make a restaurant succeed, and can grow a burger-flipping empire out of a literal hot dog cart. (The St. Louis native has also successfully introduced at least one Midwest culinary classic — the concrete — to audiences on both coasts, so perhaps Panera’s questionably sliced, St. Louis-style bagels are primed for a trending arc.) Now, as Meyer expands his influence in the fast-food space, the question remains whether his enlightened approach to hospitality has the potential to change the lives not just of customers, but of those who make that hospitality possible.