Series on Empathy: Empathy at Panera

Feeling sorry for someone’s predicament is sympathy but to actually make a meaningful difference by moving out of one’s comfort zone, go an extra mile…that is the crux of empathy.

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A 21-year-old college student named Brandon Cook visited his grandmother in the hospital. She was dying of cancer. Brandon loved his grandmother a lot and knew she didn’t have much time to live. Watching her die was hard and he really wanted to make her happy, knowing that doing so will make him happy too.

He knew she hated the hospital food and what she really craved for was clam chowder from Panera. Though Brandon hadn’t eaten his grandma’s hospital food, but he could imagine how bland it tasted. He felt that she deserved better, and wanted to give it to her.

However, Panera only sold their clam chowder on Fridays. Unfortunately, the day Brandon’s grandma wanted clam chowder, wasn’t a Friday. Brandon knew that grandma didn’t have much longer to live. For him that day was what mattered.

Brandon called up the local Panera and asked for the manager. He explained the situation and the manager was very touched by the love Brandon felt for his grandma. The manager could imagine what it feels like to know you’re about to lose someone who means so much and you want to make them happy in the time left. Though the day wasn’t Friday, the manager decided to go out of her way to make the clam chowder. She told Brandon when he could come to pick it up.

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When Brandon arrived at the Panera in Nashua, New Hampshire, the clam chowder was waiting for him. Along with it, the manager gave him a box of cookies. The manager didn’t know Brandon’s grandma and also didn’t know if she liked cookies, but she knew how most people feel about cookies. She could imagine that a free and unexpected box of cookies would make Brandon’s grandma even happier than a cup of on-the-wrong-day clam chowder.

Brandon was so thankful to Panera for helping him deliver clam chowder to his dying grandma. Not only did the manager go out of her way to make the soup for only one customer, she also gave him a box of cookies for free. Brandon imagined that it must have been an inconvenience to make a whole batch of soup on a day they hadn’t planned to. He also imagined that giving away free cookies isn’t commonplace at Panera. He recognized that the manager understood his situation and felt his pain. She not only wanted to fulfill his wish, but surprise him as well. She must have really cared about him and about his grandma. The result of empathy is intrinsic and doesn’t require validation. Empathy is the ability to relate.

Can one person make a difference? Yes, especially when it comes to fostering organizational culture. In this case, the organization had taught its employee to act with compassion and bend the rules when she felt it was appropriate. Those who aren’t treated humanely cease to feel like human beings. Inevitably, it becomes impossible to see others as human beings worthy of being treated humanely. When an organization treats its employees with empathy, they become capable of experiencing and imparting empathy in turn.