Panera's nonprofit takes an egalitarian approach to bread

Imagine rolling into your neighborhood Panera Bread Company and ordering your usual pumpkin latte, panini or a cup of soup- but when you reach the cashier at the end of the line to pay, instead of being told what you owe, the woman behind the counter encourages you to, “take what you need, leave your fair share” in the donation box on the counter?

What would you do if you knew that most of the money you placed in the box would be used for job training or to feed unemployed folks your own community?

That’s exactly what PBC is trying to find out by starting an experiment, called St. Louis Bread Company Cares Café. At this in Clayton, Mo., café, those who can pay are asked to donate the amount that’s on their receipt (or maybe a little more) to the organization. Customers who can’t pay at all are asked to donate their time if they can. The menus are identical to other Paneras and all the proceeds go to local charities.

Panera’s goal is to open one of these non-profit stores in each of the 1,400 communities where they currently operate. But first, this one has to work.

On one hand, the well-honed cynic in me is skeptical whether this venture can be successful. Won’t people take advantage of the honor system and mooch whatever they can? On the other hand, I want to be proved wrong and shown that people are inherently good and want to do what’s good for their community.

PBC has some things going for them with this model. First, St. Louis Bread Company Cares Cafe gets all the tax benefits of being a non-profit arm of PBC. Second, Clayton is an affluent St. Louis suburb where the median household income hovers near $74,000 per year. This flagship location sends a message that this is less about giving away free meals and more about donating funds to local charities. And, as a practical matter, nothing on PBC’s regular menu actually costs the company what they charge the customer. A sandwich doesn’t really cost $6 to make—so even if a customer donates $3 for a $6 sandwich, the non-profit could still break even on the donation.

At the very least, PBC deserves kudos for trying to engage customers to make their community stronger and I would support a store that opened in the Tampa Bay area. Would you?

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