When Panera Bread closed its doors on Commonwealth Avenue in May, many Boston University students were sad to see one of their favorite on-campus eateries go. In its absence, Panera regulars are having to find somewhere else to eat — and according to the company’s CEO, we shouldn’t be looking to McDonald’s as a replacement.
An article in Bloomberg reported that on Wednesday, Panera CEO Ron Shaich challenged McDonald’s Corp. CEO Steve Easterbrook to spend a week eating Happy Meals — which is part of a long-running campaign Shaich has had against fast-food giants like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s. In his most recent move, Shaich spoke out against McDonald’s kids meals, saying they are not healthy enough for children to be consuming — specifically the french fries, soda and artificial ingredients that come with every order.
This criticism is not about McDonald’s — it is about marketing, and what’s good for publicity. But as good for publicity as it may be, it’s also petty. It’s an accusation instead of a discussion, and that is fundamentally counterproductive.
Panera is being hypocritical, plain and simple. They aren’t exactly a health food chain — they serve salads and smoothies, sure, but they also serve mac and cheese and cookies. In fact, a McDonald’s Big Mac actually has less calories than a bowl of Panera’s mac and cheese. Of course there are a myriad of other factors that go into whether or not a food is healthy, but the fact still stands that Panera isn’t perfect, not by any standards.
In terms of nutritional value, this sandwich-shop-squabble is nothing more than the pot calling the kettle black — however, that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that healthy food is expensive, and a lot of people can’t afford to eat that way. On the other side of the spectrum, McDonald’s — fatty as it may be — has a whole menu of items that cost just $1. Though it is done unintentionally, by claiming superiority over McDonald’s, Shaich is portraying people who eat at Panera as superior to those who eat at McDonald’s. This is a low blow.
Shaich has built up a reputation over the past several years for being a socially conscious CEO. He actively denounces President Donald Trump, and vehemently spoke out against August’s violence in Charlottesville. He even spent a week living off of $4.50 a day in 2013 to raise awareness about the struggles low-income families face in putting food on the table. All of these things are great, and probably great for PR, too, but they are just surface-level activism. Fighting for kids at McDonald’s to be served healthier junk-food is a good start, but it’s of little consequence when there are thousands of low-income families in America who can’t afford to serve their children anything else.
In fact, it’s kind of condescending. Shaich challenged Easterbrook to eating McDonald’s for a week like it would be a difficulty and a hardship, and maybe even a little bit gross — but for so many Americans, eating McDonald’s every day is just a regular week. When this is someone’s reality, they aren’t eating McDonald’s out of pure choice. They understand it’s unhealthy, but they can’t afford the alternatives. Meanwhile, Shaich stands to make nearly $400 million for selling the company earlier this year. Who is this multi-millionaire to be passing judgements on people who can’t even afford to buy a sandwich?
In short, calling out a specific company for their imperfect practices is pointless. McDonald’s could stand to do a lot better, both nutritionally and otherwise, but so could everyone — every company could be more local, healthy and sustainable. Why dwell on the shortcomings of others when you could focus on working to make your own company the best it can be?
Panera does do a lot of charitable work. They have several nonprofit branches dedicated to feeding the hungry. Their Day-End Dough-Nation foundation works to avoid food waste by donating old food to people in need — their Panera Gives program does similar work. Through these methods and others, the company probably helps to feed countless people each year. But could they be doing more? The answer is almost definitely yes.
Panera is never going to donate every cent they make, as wonderful as that would be. That is not the nature of capitalism — wanting more money is just the economic system we subscribe to. But what Panera is doing now is strategic activism. It’s about doing something loud instead of doing something big. That is what the media likes to see, but it’s not the most effective way to be giving back.
At the end of the day, McDonald’s is a scapegoat — and it’s a lazy one at that. Panera and McDonald’s are not each other’s competitors, or at least they shouldn’t be. Panera needs to lead by example, and make a big change in the affordability and access of healthy food, especially in low-income communities before calling out companies that are no better than them.