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Inspiring Stories

Fantastic Friday: Panera Bread Edition

SHAICH

Panera Bread is doing something cool in their stores.  Actually, they started doing something cool three years ago and are now expanding that coolness.

Three years after launching the first of five pay-what-you-want cafes, the suburban St. Louis-based chain on Wednesday quietly began its latest charitable venture that takes the concept on a trial run to all 48 cafes in the St. Louis region.

The new idea experiments with a single menu item, Turkey Chili in a Bread Bowl, available at each St. Louis-area store for whatever the customer chooses to pay. The new chili uses all-natural, antibiotic-free turkey mixed with vegetables and beans in a sourdough bread bowl. The suggested $5.89 price (tax included) is only a guideline. All other menu items are sold for the posted price.

Panera calls it the Meal of Shared Responsibility, and says the potential benefit is twofold: Above-the-cost proceeds go to cover meals for customers who cannot pay the full amount and to St. Louis-area hunger initiatives; and for those in need, the 850-calorie meal provides nearly a day’s worth of nutrition at whatever price they can afford.

“We hope the suggested donations offset those who say they only have three bucks in their pocket or leave nothing,” said Ron Shaich, founder, chairman and co-CEO of the chain and president of its charitable arm, Panera Bread Foundation.

Of course, most people’s natural reaction, I would predict, would be to assume the worst of people. If I had to gues, probably a little something like this…

  1. People are dishonest
  2. Panera is putting too much trust in them
  3. People will be stingy freeloaders and lie about how much they can pay regularly
  4. Panera Bread will, as a result, lose money
  5. Experiment over…

I suppose that’s a logical conclusion if the vast majority of people are dishonest, uncaring and / or selfish.  But, surprise surprise, contrary to what the cynics may think, Panera has not experienced this behavior and has seen the exact opposite in many instances.

The first pay-what-you-want Panera Cares cafe opened in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton in 2010. Others followed in Dearborn, Mich., Portland, Ore., Chicago and Boston.

At those nonprofit cafes, every menu item is paid for by donations. Kate Antonacci of Panera Bread Foundation said roughly 60 percent of customers pay the suggested retail price. The rest are about evenly split between those who pay more and those who pay less.

Sounds like that works, no?

Further, what I think a lot of folks misunderstand is that many (most?) people aren’t actively looking to cheat others, and certainly aren’t looking for something for free.  That’s why you hear stories of people refusing “charity” and wanting to contribute something in some way, even if it’s helping with a seemingly meaningless task.  Most people  want to have an even exchange, where even isn’t always measured by dollar signs, but by how much is sacrificed or how much of oneself is given.  Which is another reason why I think the Panera Bread idea is great.  In many ways, it removes the stigma of charity as everyone can contribute in whatever way they are able to.

Shaich is optimistic based on what he’s seen firsthand. He worked at the opening of the Clayton store, making food and waiting on customers. He saw well-to-do frat boys leaving without paying a dime, but more often, he saw people being generous. Even those clearly in need dug into their pockets.

“A lot of cynics think Americans are just gaming the system,” Shaich said. “Our experience is very different. People do the right thing and are willing to take care of each other.”

Have a Fantastic Friday everyone!

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