Indian American CEO suggests innovative approach to opening up

Niren Chaudhary
Niren Chaudhary

Panera Bread’s Niren Chaudhary says opening up in phased manner right thing to do.

As the US starts opening up after two months of lockdown amid a raging coronavirus pandemic, the Indian American CEO of a leading restaurant chain has suggested an innovative approach.

“I believe that the health crisis is now becoming a financial crisis,” said Niren Chaudhary, President/CEO of Panera Bread during President Donald Trump’s roundtable with restaurant executives and industry leaders at the White House Monday.

“Opening up the economy right now in a phased manner is the right thing to do,” he said, with 36 million Americans unemployed and about 54 million Americans fighting hunger,

Panera with 2,500 cafes, employing 140,000 people and with revenues of about $6 billion, is slowly coming back after losing close to 50 percent of its revenue in the first week thanks to some innovative ideas, Chaudhary said.

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For its furloughed employees, Panera has free family meals every week, emergency relief funds, and arrangements with peer companies like CVS, and Walmart to hire them temporarily, and then return them back.

For customers, Panera innovated very quickly, Chaudhary said. “We’ve launched the curbside pickup service with geofencing, and also free Wi-Fi outside the cafes because life is moving to outside the cafes.”

It was also doing a lot for the communities, especially those impacted most by the pandemic, he said. Panera was serving about 50,000 meals to doctors and nurses in New York and children in Ohio in partnership with the US Agricultural Department.

“We’ve launched a program called ‘Together Without Hunger with Feeding America,” Chaudhary said, “and have pledged to serve half a million meals to children and families through Feeding America.”

President Trump, in turn, told the restaurant executives that the Paycheck Protection Program has delivered over $30 billion in aid to more than 250,000 restaurants. Up to 95 percent of that funding is going directly to the worker’s payroll, he said.

On Friday, the Small Business Administration (SBA) published the loan forgiveness application, which ensures that all businesses, including restaurants, will not be penalized as long as they make good-faith efforts to rehire all of their employees, Trump said.

Businesses can defer paying income taxes until July 15 and claim tax refunds by deducting their losses from the 2018 through 2020 against taxes they paid for the previous five years, he said.

Trump also suggested creating an “Explore America” tax credit that Americans can use for domestic travel, including visits to restaurants.  “That’s a big deal,” he said.

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