Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Panera’s Pay-What-You-Can Project

The baked-goods giant is quietly unveiling donation-based shops to draw attention to food insecurity. The trick is staying solvent.

A man with his pants pocket turned inside out, signifying that he's got no money.

Photo: danielmoyle (Flickr)

Empty pockets? You can still get lunch at a Panera Cares location.

A Panera Cares store looks just like a regular Panera Bread when you walk in the door.

There’s a wooden counter with displays of baked goods behind glass; thermoses of self-serve coffee; the space is filled with clean-looking wooden furniture.

But walk to the end of the counter and you’ll find donation boxes where the cash registers should be. The large menus high on the wall omit prices in favor of suggested donations.

Customers at the restaurant can choose to pay a suggested donation amount, donate a little bit more, or pay nothing at all.

And so far, the organization’s four locations are all paying for themselves.

Get Soup For No Bread

Panera Cares restaurants are former Panera Bread locations that have been donated to the company’s non-profit arm.

Ron Shaich is co-founder and co-CEO of Panera Bread Co. and president of the Panera Foundation. He sees the Panera Cares initiative as a project to draw attention to middle-class food insecurity.

The idea, he says, is to create an environment where people who can’t afford to buy food can come and eat with dignity, as compared to the bare-bones atmosphere of many soup kitchens.

Location Is Everything

While Panera Bread Co. donates space and equipment to all Panera Cares locations, restaurants are expected to cover their own expenses. This includes staff, who are paid the same as any standard Panera employee.

Since there has to be enough people willing and able to pay extra in order to offset those who can’t pay, Panera Cares establishments must be situated in economically diverse areas to remain solvent.

Does Santa Claus Really Exist?

While lower-income patrons of Panera Cares often express gratefulness that they have a place where they can eat affordably, higher-income customers appreciate the opportunity to lend a helping hand simply by buying lunch.

Some observers are more cynical, however, questioning whether the project’s true purpose is to make a dent in food insecurity, or simply to give Panera a significant PR boost.

Like Starbucks, Panera is a large chain that has been accused of harming local economies by driving independent coffee shops out of business.

Time will tell if Panera Cares locations can stay in business themselves.

Read More:

  • Panera Sandwich Chain Explores “Pay What You Want” Concept (NPR)
  • Panera To Open First Pay-What-You-Can Café In Lakeview (Chicago Tribune)
  • Is Ron Shaich Out To Lunch? (Boston.com)
Sarah Gordon

Sarah Gordon has been interested in food ethics since she was 15, learned about industrial slaughter, and launched into 10 years of vegetarianism. These days, she strives to be a conscientious omnivore. Now a PhD candidate in folklore, her research has caused her to spend a lot of time in the remote Canadian sub-arctic, where the lake trout (sustainably harvested) tastes amazing.

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