Friday, March 29, 2019

Nazi Experiment in Socialism Fails

Panera Bread gave up on giving out free food when it turned out people wouldn't pay for free food.
And gee, the guy doesn't even look Nazi!
(Photo: Helmüt Hedd)

Panera Bread was in the news recently for two reasons. First, the family that owns the parent company of Panera Bread as well as Peet's Coffee, Krispy Kreme, Einstein Brothers Bagelry, and those despicable  Keurig people, turned out to be descended from virulent Nazis. They've apologized for their ancestors' behavior and agreed to donate millions of dollars to charity.

The family owns a host of food chains, most of which I never visit.  Mark dragged me to a Panera Bread once - decades ago, in Virginia - and told me it was the kicky new thing all his friends at work were talking about.   All I thought was, "it's just sandwiches, and not very good ones at that - and the ordering process is convoluted and confusing!"   I think it was more about being trendy than the food, back in the days before bread was considered evil.

Sure, we used to go to Krispy Kreme, when it was a Southern Institution in Virginia - until we realized that wolfing down a box of Kremes with a large coffee was like a 2,000 calorie nightmare - and sure to put you on the toilet in short order.   When they went "public" in one of the previous IPO orgies, I sort of lost interest.  It's just donuts, people, not oxygen.

The problem with Einstein Brothers Bagelry - besides the irony of Nazis serving bagels - was that while I loved bagels, I came to realize that just a plain bagel without anything on it was like 300 calories alone.  And like the Panera Bread store, the cost of these sandwiches was, well, outrageous.  The ambiance of these places was, well, it was not a dining experience, but more of a refueling.  And good luck finding a table with all the trendies doing their thing on the WiFi.  So, their stores are just not my thing.    Besides, it is far easier to just make breakfast at home - and cheaper.

In other news, Panara Bread recently canceled their free food program which was offered in places such as Portland, Oregon (big surprise) and Boston, Massachusetts. The idea was that you would go into Panera Bread and pay what you felt was reasonable for the food at the checkout line. If you wanted to, you could pay for more than your food with the excess going to cover the cost of food for people less fortunate than yourself.

Of course, this whole thing is predicated that people who have less money than you are less fortunate, and not merely lazy, drug-addicted, mentally ill, or have other issues.  It is true that fortune smiles upon some and frowns upon others, but as Thomas Jefferson once said, "I find the harder I work, the more my luck improves."

Of course, he owned slaves.  That improves your luck as well.

This also plays into the narrative that people are starving in America, when in fact we have the most obese and overweight poor people on the planet.  It also plays into the guilt factor - as you are buying food, you are reminded that other people don't have food.  So, they try to extort money out of their own customers.  But some people like that sort of guilt, particularly people on the left.  So in a way it is smart marketing.

What Panera Bread found out, was something that a third grader could have told them.  When you put out things for free, people will take them.  And many students in the area, including high school students and college students, would come in and take the free food and not pay anything for it.  Also, homeless people flocked to the stores and took everything they could get their hands on.  If the food was free why shouldn't they be allowed to take as much as they wanted?  They tried banning students from the store during school hours, but that didn't work.  They tried hiring people to shame folks into paying for their food - that didn't work, either.   Free is free - you can't charge for things that are free.  Like I said, a third-grader would have figured that out.

Of course, this experiment in socialism might have worked out just fine if Mr. And Mrs. Gotrocks showed up and bought one sandwich and paid $5,000 for it because they felt they needed to make up for their good fortune in life.  But what Mr. And Mrs. Gotrocks did was not show up at all. They didn't want to dine at a sandwich shop, much less a sandwich shop frequented by noisy and loud students and smelly and aggressive homeless people.  Most people wouldn't, even Mr. and Mrs. Middle-Class, who had to work for their money.

In a way, it's like the Oprah-Pontiac effect. Oprah made big news by giving away Pontiac G6 sedans to homeless mothers. Pontiac apparently thought this would be good public relations for them, but instead it tagged the car as being the vehicle of homeless people.  If you want to sell a car, you want a celebrity to endorse it, not a bum.  By the way, Pontiac is no longer in business.

Most restaurant owners have discovered this effect through trial and error. It seems like a helpful thing to do if you have leftover bread or other products to hand them out to some homeless guy who comes to your back door asking for food because he's hungry.  Of course, he's not really hungry, he just spent his cash money on drugs and doesn't have any money left over for food - a decision he consciously made, because he knew that in a caring country, no one would let him starve.

And if you are a compassionate person you don't want to throw away food when somebody's hungry. So it seems like a no-brainer to just give him whatever you have left over. The problem is, tomorrow you open the door for business and find two homeless people sleeping on the loading dock asking where their free meals are.  Then three.  Then twenty.

It's the same thing with feral cats or chickens or squirrels. You put out food for them and they take it. And then more of them show up, and more of them, and more of them, and pretty soon you're overrun.  And then you have to make the hard choice to stop feeding them - which usually results in more problems, as they are now dependent on you.

Of course the entire thing was a marketing gimmick. Panera Bread is trying to appeal to a liberal consumer base.  Liberals will generally spend more money on products than conservatives.  If you want to sell overpriced coffee or overpriced sandwiches you're better off targeting upscale liberals than conservatives.  Conservatives might have more money, but chances are they earned it the hard way and they respect money and thus they won't spend $15 on a poorly made sandwich. And they certainly won't spend $25 on the same sandwich on the premise that the extra $10 will go to feed some homeless chap.

I can't blame Panera Bread for using this marketing technique, because this is how you make money - by determining who your demographic customer base is and then pandering to them.  It is the same reason Subaru sponsors NPR - they know their customer base.  I think, however, that a more effective and efficient way of doing this would be to offer the diners a chance to pay a dollar extra at checkout, with the money going to a local homeless shelter.

Many grocery stores are doing this, such as Whole Foods and the like, where you are asked at check out if you want to donate money to charity.  Again, the target demographic is wealthy liberals, and many of them will pay the extra dollar, particularly if they are shamed into doing it.

In addition to being a more efficient way of distributing money, it means you won't have smelly homeless people clogging up the aisles of your upscale gourmet food store, scaring off Buffy and Biff, who are perusing a selection of exotic imported cheeses.

But maybe a better idea is to just separate politics from business entirely. Why should I care whether a business supports a particular charity or not?  Unfortunately, it seems like people on both sides of the political spectrum are at this. We recently visited a Hobby Lobby to buy some wind chime parts for one of Mark's art projects  (Micheal's didn't carry them).   As you walk in, there's a huge display promoting their Museum of the Bible which is apparently on or near the mall in Washington DC and is full of relics, some of which are actually real.  It's not a very subtle message - when you spend a dollar at Hobby Lobby you are funding right-wing fundamentalist Christian theology.

But again, Hobby Lobby knows their market, and this actually helps them in some markets particularly in the South, where people are religious and conservative.  People will go there instead of patronizing those atheist bastards at Michael's, to show their support for the Jesus.  So again, maybe it's just good business - at least in the South.

If you want to expand your market beyond a certain region or demographic, however, oftentimes these sort of political marketing techniques can fail. Chick-fil-A realized this when they tried to expand out of the South.  Their Christian affiliation and anti-gay stands did't sell well in places like New York City. And it's just a chicken sandwich for Chrissakes, it's not like they've made them out of gold or something.  I for one, don't understand the lines-around-the-block for these sandwiches.  But again, judging by the number of Christian fish emblems on the backs of the SUVs in the drive-through, I am guessing that they are buying their lunch there as a way of making up for missing church that week,

But getting back to feeding the homeless, another item in the news illustrates how inefficient these methods are in helping the poor.  Another tear-jerker story in the Washington Post (yes, they still have "democracy cries in the darkness" on their masthead) recounts how two women living in a tent near Union Station were able to raise $22,000 through crowdfunding.   That's enough to pay the rent on an apartment in DC for nearly two years.  But for some reason, they are still in the tent, and will be finding a place "soon" - perhaps through the public housing authority.

The problem I have with these types of stories is twofold.  First, I have no way of vetting these two ladies.  Are they really downtrodden people who are just out of luck, or is there another side of the story, usually involving drug use?   Also, why isn't the money being given directly to them, or more precisely, shouldn't it be?   It would be interesting to see what they did with that much cash and how long it lasted.  I am thinking that it might not play out the way "homeless advocates" think it would work out, which again, is bad PR.

But the second problem - the big one - is that this is a very uneven way to apply aid to people.   These two ladies are sympathetic and a homeless advocate set up a gofundme page for them - and they have publicity in the mainstream media.  They are attractive people and engaging, so they get funded.  This is a irrational way to apply aid to "those in need" - based on how appealing their victimhood is.  Need should not be determined by who has the best PR behind them, or who is the most media-savvy or television-ready.

Similarly, offering free sandwiches at selected outlets in selected locations doesn't really seem a like a substantial way of combating homelessness, so much as it is a publicity stunt.   Which, of course it is.  Or was, anyway.

These publicity stunts are akin to someone walking by a house on fire, and then throwing a glass of water on the fire and saying, "we're doing our part to put out house fires!" - when in reality, they aren't doing much at all, other than to aggrandize themselves.   Actually solving problems isn't sexy or exciting, but drudgery.  And the people solving real-world problems are not doing so to promote themselves or burnish their image.  And we rarely hear about them, because they don't have a publicist.

It is like the lady I saw in the Jaguar giving a homeless man a $20 bill at the traffic light, while it was green, during rush-hour.   We all had to wait in line after that, but she showed us that she cares about the less fortunate!   I doubt she would sell the Jag and donate the proceeds to a homeless shelter, though.   It's all about show, not about the go.   And the guy getting the $20?   That didn't change his life much - but he did get really, really high that night.

Getting back to Nazis, through, the same thing is true.  The family that runs these trendy food companies doesn't need to apologize to me or anyone else for having Nazi ancestors.  If you were born after 1930 in Germany, chances are, you had ancestors or relatives who were either Nazis or sympathizers or fought in the war, or worked in war industries or merely failed to say anything when bad stuff was going down.   The fact that your ancestors did something bad doesn't mean you are bad.  I mean, it isn't like being a member of the Sackler family, right?   I mean, if that was the case, then you are a real sonufabitch, and no amount of donating to art galleries is going to make it all right.

And it's not like you are the Sultan of Brunei, either.

Generally speaking, I tend not to do business with companies that are owned by murderers.   But other than that, I try to keep politics out of it.