Panera: planning more pay-what-you-can cafes

The plan went like this: The menus at Panera Cares Cafe wouldn't list prices, only suggested donations, and rather than handing money to a clerk, customers would drop their coins and bills into donation bins at the counter.

They could pay the full suggested price. Or pay more. Or pay less — even nothing — if that's all they could afford.

But it would be a place where everyone who needed a meal could get one.

The unspoken question was could the cafe sustain itself — pay its bills and cover its costs -- when its survival depended on customers doing the right thing? Or would people choose to eat for little or nothing, even when they could afford to pay?

In many ways, "it was a test of humanity," says Ron Shaich, president of the Panera Bread Foundation and executive chairman of Panera Bread company (PNRA). "We didn't know if people would help each other or take advantage."

Now, after assessing the cafe's first year of performance, the foundation has its answer.

Not only will it continue the Dearborn Panera Cares Cafe and others in Clayton, Mo., and Portland, Ore., it plans to launch more locations in other cities, adding to a growing number of pay-what-you-can cafes being opened around the country by churches, community groups and other benefactors.

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Posted on February 23, 2012 and filed under Best Practices.