The Untold Truth Of Corner Bakery Cafe

In September 2020, Corner Bakery Cafe began to show signs of how the prolonged effects of the pandemic have hurt it. This occurs at the close of a decade that began with the purchase of the brand's parent company, Il Fornaio, by Roark Capital Group in 2011. "The partnership with Roark is a perfect fit, providing each brand with unique opportunities," Mike Hislop, CEO of Il Fornaio, said in a press statement about the acquisition. "Our ability to leverage Roark's strong background and extensive resources within the franchise and restaurant industries allows us to better serve our current Corner Bakery Cafe partners, while accelerating our pursuit of new franchisees." 

And for the decade, it worked. From the 119 locations in 20 states, Corner Bakery Cafe had managed to expand to 175 in 23 states, becoming the third highest grossing bakery cafe chain in the United States in Eat This, Not That!'s 2020 report. The central premise of the brand, as Chicago Reader describes, is "a cheap lunch spot and a good place to find delicious (if expensive) breads." The food, as Ric Scicchitano, the chef from the original Chicago bakery, told QSR in 2015, "is at the forefront of what we do... We aren't afraid to spend the money to have a higher-quality product."

It was with a similar tone that the next purchaser of the brand, Boston Market owner Pandya, explained its acquisition to Nation Restaurant News in October, despite the reduction in outlets that COVID caused. 

The Corner Bakery Cafe has suffered along with its competitors during the pandemic

However, as mentioned, despite the constant refrain of positivity, Corner Bakery Cafe has had a rough time of it during the pandemic. Reporting on their September difficulties, Restaurant Business analyzed how with the decline of the urban worker's commute during the pandemic. According to their piece, Corner Bakery Cafe hired both restructuring and financial advisors to explore the possibilities of sale. They also note, however, that the remote working and lockdowns are not entirely to blame, as the 175 locations with which the brand ended 2019 marked a drop from 2014's 184.

Still, as Restaurant Business also grants, the struggles of Corner Bakery Cafe were felt across the casual bakery industry. In May 2020, for example, Eater announced a deal in which Le Pain Quotidien sold all of its 98 American outlets for $3 million. Like Corner Bakery Cafe, it too was facing a decline before 2020, but the pandemic widened its weakness into a financial worry. 

"Urban-centric bakery/café chains have been among the biggest losers during the pandemic," Restaurant Business noted, due to how reliant they are upon office workers popping in for a lunchtime pastry or salad. Similarly, catering options have disappeared as well, for obvious reasons. Eventually, perhaps workers will return to their offices, but many seem likely to remain as remote employees, because it is cheaper to keep them as such. If so, the long term recovery of the already struggling Corner Bakery Cafe and Le Pain Quotidien seems uncertain.

Corner Bakery Cafe has also incurred a class action lawsuit

Sympathy for the brand, however, may be somewhat diluted by the news of a proposed class action lawsuit lobbed by one of their former cashiers. The issue at the heart of the lawsuit is, as documented in June 2020, the employee maintained that Corner Bakery Cafe required fingerprint scans to sign in and out of work without following the requirements set out by Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act.

Biometric information, as Restaurant Owner Magazine explains, is data of a person's characteristics that are unique enough to be able to identify the person, like fingerprints. The rules set by the Act include receiving the employee's written consent, informing the employees of the intended use of the data, and publishing a public schedule for when the data would be deleted. The complaint said Corner Bakery Cafe failed to follow these instructions and shared their information with a third party time-keeping agency.

As Cook County Record wrote during the proceedings, all the complaint had to prove under Illinoisan law was that Corner Bakery Cafe failed in this regard, not that the breach of privacy had resulted in concrete damage. So, the chain settled with a $3.2 million payment to the 4,000 workers behind the lawsuit. This, as should be emphasized, was during the decline brought on by the pandemic. Not all the problems that caused Corner Bakery Cafe to bounce from owner to owner came from without then, but from a lapse in oversight.