You’re at the gas station, say. Your purchase comes out to $10.02, and all you have on you are paper bills. Luckily for you, someone was kind enough to take the extra three cents they received as change, and put it in the “Take a Penny, Leave a Penny” tray. This concept exists only because those taking pennies are expected – sooner or later – to give some back.
This is the basic concept for the honor system, and, even if only in some small way (like this); we’ve all used it at some point in our lives.
Have I used it? Absolutely.
When a “Pay What You Can” Panera opened up last month in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, it piqued my curiosity. How would this concept work on a larger scale? If it could work, would it be able to break even? Could it even prove profitable?
It’s a simple idea: each item has a “suggested funding level” or, in laymen’s terms, price. The wealthier patrons are encouraged to donate over the standard value, those who are short can pay less, and those who can’t pay anything can earn a free meal simply by volunteering an hour of their time.
A year after the first “Panera Cares Community Café” opened, CEO Ron Shaich proudly announced that 20% of customers leave more than the suggested amount (with no pressure forcing them to), while 20% leave less. From that information alone, we can assume their restaurants are – so far – successful, and in a worst-case scenario, make as much as any regular Panera Bread store would. This store is the fourth one the company has opened in the past year, with plans to another each quarter nationally.
As far as making money goes, they’re doing just fine. Any company can donate money to a cause, and stand back at a distance while others do their charity work for them. I admire the heck out of this company by becoming not only directly involved with the community, but becoming part of it, too.
You’ve seen photographs from the Great Depression, I’m sure: the downtrodden unemployed standing slumped in soup lines. Sure, the name of the era was derived from a financial depression, but it also was an emotional low point for many. Standing in that soup line, having to take a handout? Not exactly a pick-me-up and a reminder of the pride people lost. Panera Cares aims to serve as a pick-me-up, and restore pride to people who may feel as if they’ve lost some.
Shaich created the concept to remedy the institutional quality of ‘Soup Kitchen’ food, as well as the generally institutional-like service and atmosphere. Having volunteered locally at a soup kitchen in Joliet a few times, I can agree with him. You’re served that way in grade school. Or the military. Or worse, prison. Waiting in line with a tray, being served in an assembly-line fashion, and sitting on hard cafeteria tables doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience. Warm, incandescent lighting? Comfortable, independent seating? Eating from actual ceramic tableware? All those things certainly sound like improvements to me. Shaich goes so far to say it is the “Full Panera Experience.”
In this tough economy, more people than ever are pinching pennies, and some couldn’t otherwise afford to eat their meals out at places like Panera. Knowing this experience would still give them the means to? I know I’d be grateful, and it’s one more small slice of normalcy people could retain in their lives. Hopefully, soon enough, more of us will be able to return to the “Full Experience” with Panera’s help.
For some, they already have. Take five minutes and read some of the uplifting stories they’ve on their website.
The Panera Cares Community Café is located at 616 W. Diversey Pwky. In Chicago’s Lakeview East Neighborhood. See it for yourself in this video!
Have you ever volunteered for a soup kitchen, and if so, what was your experience like? Do you think Panera Cares will revolutionize this concept? Would you personally visit one of their stores, or one like it?