In Annual Campaign, Panera Offers ‘Pieces of Hope’

AUSTINTOWN, Ohio – A customer had barely entered the Panera Bread Bakery-Café here late Monday morning before the restaurant’s general manager, Joyce Mayer, called out to him.

“Hey, David, you have to buy some cookies,” she implored, as she did to all her regular customers this morning.

“If they come in five days a week, they’ll buy them five days a week,” she said later.

Sure enough, he held up the special Pieces of Hope cookies as he exited the store.

Yesterday marked the launch of the weeklong Pieces of Hope cookie sale at Panera Bread. Through Sunday, the cafes in the Mahoning Valley and Hermitage, Pa., operated by Warren-based Covelli Enterprises, will sell the puzzle-piece cookies. All of the proceeds from the cookies will benefit the Rich Center for Autism at Youngstown State University and Potential Development Schools for Autism, Youngstown.

Since Pieces of Hope launched seven years ago, the campaign has raised $120,000, said Ashlee Mauti, director of marketing for Covelli Enterprises. The annual effort uses the cafes as a platform to raise public awareness of autism as well as to raise funds, she said.

“We like to get behind causes that we feel like we can use Panera as a platform for awareness. Certainly the Rich Center at YSU and Potential Development are gems in our community,” she said.

“I love our Pieces of Hope for Autism campaign because I know how much good it is doing in our communities,” Sam Covelli, owner of Covelli Enterprises, said in a news release announcing this year’s campaign. “This special cookie has allowed us to make such a positive difference for those with autism here in our Valley and that’s something we are extremely proud of.”

One in 68 children are diagnosed with autism, including one out of 42 boys, said Melanie Carfolo, executive director of the Rich Center. Like Mauti, she sees the campaigns as a valuable vehicle to raise awareness that autism exists and isn’t going away, as well as to raise the public profile of organizations like the Rich Center and Potential Development.

“One of the things that I frequently say is that if you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism,” Carfolo said. “Autism comes in many different shapes and forms and different needs for children.”

Also, she said, autism is nothing to fear. “At the end of the day, a child with autism is a child first,” she said.

“Getting our name out through all the local Panera stores has been great,” said Paul Garchar, Potential Development’s executive director. This is the school’s third year as a beneficiary of the campaign.

“It’s a nice donation to the agency but it’s flexible,” Garchar said. “There are no strings attached so it can go directly toward needs that are relevant for us.”

Funds raised during this year’s campaign likely will go toward the planned renovation of the upper level of the elementary school, Garchar said. Renovation of the building’s first floor and lower level were completed last September and the space is already filled, he said.

“One of the nice things that we’ve been able to do in the last couple of years is increase the amount of services that are provided to our children with autism,” Carfolo said. “We dramatically increased the speech and language pathology and occupational therapy services for our students at the Rich Center.”

Proceeds from this year’s drive are expected to go toward the Rich Center’s $6 million capital campaign that launched last fall, she said.

At the Austintown Panera, which recently began an expansion to accommodate a new drive-thru window, decorations are hung throughout the café.

Mayer – its manager for the past 12 years – said she gets “every single person” there involved in the annual campaign, including her two grandchildren, ages 2 and 4.

“If you look around the store, there’s pictures of them everywhere,” she said. “If a kid can’t sell something, nobody could.”

Mayer runs contests to encourage employee involvement. She has two contests running for the day and night shifts – the employee who sells the most cookies on each will win a Panera jacket. She also purchased 20 headbands from her niece, the owner of Manda Bees, to give to employees to encourage them to sell cookies.

“Do stuff to make them happy because you can’t run a store if you don’t have your people working with you,” she said. “I try to make everything fun.”

Employee engagement helps keep the annual campaigns fresh, Mauti said. “Our best ideas come from them,” she said.

This year, Covelli asked Panera Bread employees – from associates, maintenance and general managers to back-office staff and bakers – to submit designs for this year’s T-shirt, she reported. The company received more than 100 submissions from stores in all eight states in which Covelli operates.

“It was one of our night bakers in Cleveland that designed the T-shirt,” she said. “Our employees really get behind it and I think they feel a real sense of pride that our company does this.”

In the Columbus market, employees crafted a wooden Instagram selfie frame that people are using for pictures. In another market, employees put sticks inside the cookies and made bouquets. Covelli “has always been the type of guy that wants people to be creative and come up with ideas,” she said.

If Covelli Enterprises and its owner can give 100% toward the effort, “we’d better give 110% to help it out,” Mayer said.

Pictured: Ashlee Mauti, director of marketing for Covelli Enterprises; Joyce Mayer, general manager of Panera Bread Bakery-Café Austintown; and Melanie Carfolo, executive director of the Rich Center.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.