Pay What You Can.

Samantha Celera, via Creative Commons.

Lauren Kelley does the math on Panera’s new pay-what you-can experiment:

The company opened a nonprofit “community café” in a suburb of St. Louis, near Panera’s headquarters, that’s different from every restaurant you’ve ever been to. At this restaurant, there are no prices on the menu. Instead, customers are told to pay what they can afford.When you walk up to the counter at the alterna-Panera, you’re told to “take what you need, leave your fair share” in a donation box. Employees offer “suggested funding levels” for menu items, but the idea is that those who can afford to will pay a little extra to subsidize meals for individuals struggling with food security. It’s a completely honor system model, and one that hinges on a lot of people being willing to pay anywhere from 50¢ to $100 more than the suggested price of their turkey club. It combines elements of a soup kitchen, a traditional charity and good old American capitalism in a way that is both kind of trendy right now and also pretty revolutionary. …
The restaurant just opened last week, so it’s much too early to call the venture a success or a failure. But so far, so good. According to one of the community café cashiers, most customers paid at least full price for their meals on opening day, while some took a discount of a few dollars or more. …

What would set the Panera experiment apart, if it were to succeed, would be the project’s scale. Panera is one of the country’s fastest-growing chain restaurants, and the company is just as eager to expand its community café project. Eventually, Panera envisions operating a nonprofit restaurant in every community where it has a traditional restaurant. In other words, a lot of low-income individuals could potentially gain access to a new source of affordable food.

A commenter over at Poverty in America points out that the suburb where this pilot store is located is pretty affluent, and that the results would be very different in a place where patrons had more modest means.

(I’m also curious as to what, if anything, we might find out about the actual ideal market price of, say, a cup of coffee. Like my homie blackink, I think coffee is vile sludge, and am constantly amazed at the kind of dough people will shell out for it. What if Panera finds out that people are willing to shell out ____ for their coffee, which regularly sells at ____? Would they consider changing their prices in the regular stores?)



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Scipio Africanus

    With all the ardor and intesnity of life that I carry in my heart, I do love Panera. I am supremely pissed that there aren’t any Panera’s in inner cities, only in the suburbs.

    The food tastes great, isn’t tragically unhealthy and it’s not very expensive. I used to go there every day for lunch when I worked deep in Jersey.

    • off the top of my head, i can’t think of whether or not i’ve ever seen a Panera, let alone frequented one.

      • shani-o

        Yeah, you have, there’s a Panera where I work. I don’t frequent it because I think it IS expensive. There are a couple of local delis in my town that offer food that’s just as good, as ‘healthy,’ and cheaper.

        • Scipio Africanus

          After I left Jersey I started working in teh Financial District, and everything down there is either upsacle/healthy but overpriced, or super-cheap and depressingly unhealthy. Panera, imo, is in-between those. I could get a nice You Pick Tow lunch (2 out of soup/salad/half-sandwich choices) for $6.50, after tax (I would drink water once I got back to work.)

          If you can beat that price, not brown bag it adn not be eating garbage in the process, you’ve got a great deal with those other delis around you.

          • blackink12

            Yeah, I’ve been a semi-regular customer of Panera for the past few years (there’s one about 3 minutes from my home). And I never found it to be THAT expensive. It’s not fast-food cheap. But, you know, it’s not fast food.

  • bp

    it seems like choosing the right location for something like this would be tricky. there is an intentional geographical separation between haves and have-nots in most places. would most people who can afford to pay hefty premiums for their food travel to patronize a cafe in an economically depressed area? is it feasible for the impoverished to travel to a cafe in the nicer part of town, just for a discounted sandwich? how deep is the company’s commitment to keeping the place going when people inevitably abuse the system and the revenue doesn’t add up to the operating expenses?
    even rich people who want to help the poor don’t actually want to eat in the same place with them. I think a better idea would be a separate dedicated soup kitchen, funded by a charitable donation program run out of a designated retail location in an affluent area.

  • Val

    There already are places like this. They are traditional ‘soup kitchens’ that ask for a donation if possible and allow some to work in the kitchen for food, so this isn’t really new. As a cynical person I see this as a publicity stunt. If they were really serious, as you allude to, they’d open some of these cafes in poor communities. And we all know that’s never going to happen.

    Btw, I agree that most coffee is high priced sludge. Specifically Starbucks, which is the worst coffee I’ve ever had. But don’t wrote off all coffee until you’ve had a cup of fresh brewed Jamaican Blue Mountain.

    • As a cynical person I see this as a publicity stunt. If they were really serious, as you allude to, they’d open some of these cafes in poor communities. And we all know that’s never going to happen.

      i’m curious: how do you think this would play out if Panera opened these locations up in inner cities?

      • Val

        Well It’s not that I think it wouldn’t work in a poor community. In Fact I’m pretty sure that people in poor communities that generally don’t have any relatively healthy restaurants would really buy into this. I just don’t think that Panera is doing this for anything more than publicity, and it’s worked.

        • so what do you make of K’s comment downthread that the company has been in the habit of donating unsold bakery items at the end of the day?

          just a publicity stunt as well?

          • Val

            My point is; it’s nice that they are doing this but it would really mean something if Panera opened one of these in a neighborhood that really needed it.

            Regarding donating unsold items; well a cynic might say that they save money since they don’t have to pay to dispose of those items. :-)

            Anyway, I hope I’m wrong about Panera but it’s hard not to doubt the intentions of big business these days.

            • Regarding donating unsold items; well a cynic might say that they save money since they don’t have to pay to dispose of those items.

              dear Lord. so basically, Panera — a for-profit food chain — isn’t serious about philanthropy unless it’s a soup kitchen.


  • We’re starting to see the hypotheses of the “new” economy. Really, there is nothing new about it. It’s just capitalist entities realizing that maybe they shouldn’t exploit the communities they rely on for business…perhaps it’s better to support them. Yeah, it’s kind of like social capitalism…which is really just the contemporary manifestation of the American ideal.

    Now of course Paneras tend to be in “well-to-do” neighborhoods so here’s the challenge…what if someone walks in to buy a sandwich and a drink and lays down $1,000? Because that’s what they can afford. I know, it sounds crazy, but just think about it…think what that generous offer could do for a potential Panera entity in an impoverished area. This business would operate with the same sliding-scale philosophy. Of course the nature of the product may not rival the Panera umbrella brand, but I’m certain it will offer much more nutritious fare than say McDonalds or the local discount store. This would give them the opportunity to build their brand and cultivate new customers who may later plop down $1,000 for a sandwich and a drink once they get out of the ‘hood. You see the beautiful entanglement there? We quite literally are what we eat so if we can broaden the diets of those in the inner cities then we may be able broaden minds as well. Hey, I know cynicism gets you a seat at the cool kids table, but optimism is what gets you through high school when you’ve been shunned by those cool kids.

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  • -k-

    Panera in STL is still St. Louis Bread Company, if only just on the signs.. :) I’m not sure if this is the case nationwide, but at least in years past they donated whatever bakery items they hadn’t sold at the end of each day, so this seems like an extension of that practice and one that could feed back around into their other charitable efforts. As you note, Clayton is fancy, home of the St. Louis county courthouse and lots of law offices– which also makes total sense to me ($$$) for an initial run.