Big Bakery Chain Panera Embraces "Pay-What-You-Want" At Three Cafés

Panera Bakery photo

Photo courtesy bvalium via flickr and Creative Commons license.

You might think a pay-what-you-want café could only fly in a place like Portland, Oregon, where the streets are thick with bicycles, the homeless rate is one of the nation's highest, and every third person seemingly just moved here last year.

Yet the pay-what-you-like Panera 'community' bakery that the company is scheduled to open in Portland this month is not the first, but the third of these experimental bakeries from this chain.

While other restaurants have experimented with the volunteer payment scheme, Panera is the first national chain to do so. Why?

Panera's founder Ron Shaich who came up with the idea for cafés where patrons themselves decide what to pay after seeing a news article about Denver's Same Café. He speaks about it in the TED talk above, and makes the concept of pay-what-you-want as a part of the solution to hunger as well as a sort of test of humanity. Shaich is hoping the cafés will be sefl-sustaining, that they will operate under "shared responsibility" with the community.

The first two community bakeries are in Clayton, Missouri, and Dearborn, Michigan. At these bakeries, instead of menu prices, there is a sign that says, "Take What You Need, Leave Your Fair Share," and donation boxes. Shaich says from working in the Clayton store he learned that people need help understanding the concept, which is why the community bakeries now have a 'greeter' to explain how things work.

Shaich admits in the video that people did try to 'game' the system - "free lunch on Uncle Ron" he called it, but that there was always another side, with people who were grateful for what he calls a "hand up, not a handout."

And that "Fair Share" wording on the bakery signs is important, as Shaich's concept will only work if some visitors give more to balance out those that give less.

So far, it is looking good. The Clayton café is serving, according to Shaich's count, 4,000 customers each week.

According to this Eugene Register-Guard story, about sixty percent of patrons pay the suggested amount for the food and drinks they consume, while twenty percent pay less, and the remaining twenty percent pay more.

Panera also allows customers to pay nothing for their food selections, though the café then suggests that those eaters volunteer some time to the organization.

In Portland's case, Panera is converting an existing store to the community format. If the store generates excess revenue, it will be used to develop community work-training programs.

I love this quote from Shaich in his TED talk:

"Could we take these cafés and in doing this could we set an example to say that corporations could do more than just write a check, they could actually step up and take responsibility where they had core competency."

More about free food at TreeHugger:
Dumpster Diving Documentary on the Joy of Free Food
Crop Swap: Free Food in Hard Times
Delivering a Local Solution to Hunger, By Bike

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