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Panera Cares: Why ‘Suggested Prices’ Are Bringing Back Goodwill and Restoring Pride

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?

If you’re a buck short, no problem. If you’re $7.19 short, lend a hand for an hour.

If you’re a buck short, no problem. If you’re $7.19 short, lend a hand for an hour.

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.

In a neighborhood as diverse as their bagel selection, Panera Cares thrives by serving people from all walks of life.

In a neighborhood as diverse as their bagel selection, Panera Cares thrives by serving people from all walks of life.

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.

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?

Image credit to and The Gospel of Wealth Blog.


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  1. Jana Quinn

    I think the adjustment they’ve made to having people volunteer an hour of time for a meal has been excellent; I believe in earlier stores, the entire process was based on the honor system. Not only does it reduce the number of people who are just coming in for a freebie (instead of those who actually need the support), but it also gives job experience to those who might need the instruction (and could possibly lead to a real job). Also, I believe everyone in the country needs to work food service at least once, as a pure character-building thing, but that’s another post for another day.

    Thanks for reporting on this business strategy/community outreach “experiment.” Lots of “food” for thought here. 😉

    • Eric

      It’s a very reasonable amount of time, especially considering the meal you’d receive is the same one you’d order from one of their regular restaurants. You raise a very good point, too, Jana, noting the job experienced gained by volunteering. In an economy with a highly competitive job market, every little bit of experience helps, and hopefully this program will lead to folks being employed who otherwise wouldn’t be.

      Agreed. I think everyone should serve in BOTH retail and food service. I worked in food service for a very brief time, but it was more than enough time for me to realize how friggin’ stressful it is to be working in a kitchen during a rush. Like you said…another story for another day. 🙂

      Thanks for reading and for always-thoughtful comments, Jana. Much appreciated on both accounts.

  2. Rachel

    I had never heard of this until you brought it up the other day. It’s a really interesting concept, these stores — maybe I’m cynical, but I didn’t think such a business strategy would work in this day and age. I’ve always like Panera for the food and atmosphere, and it’s nice to know that I can like them for their community outreach, too. 🙂

    Thanks for the info, Eric!

    • Eric

      Well, Rachel, it’s the gamble you make when you establish something based on the honor system. Thousands of users could take a penny, and leave two…but all it takes is one person to come along and empty the tray. Like you, I’m happy to see the world’s not as advantageous and opportunistic as I would have thought it to be. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  3. Amy Swanson

    Great post, Eric! I knew these types of Paneras existed, but it’s so cool that there’s one in Illinois now 🙂 I haven’t ever volunteered at a soup kitchen, but my church goes to a local one here in Aurora every few months. I can’t always volunteer my time, but I love donating financially to causes when I can. I wouldn’t give it a second thought to pay double for my meal so that someone else could have one for free. It’s such a nice idea and I hope it takes off and others “copy” it.

    Excellent information as usual, Eric. Thanks!

    • Eric

      It adds up, regardless. Even putting an extra nickel more in is that much closer someone will be to a meal they’d otherwise couldn’t afford, that is, if they were able to have a meal at all. The stories from volunteers and visitors both just melt your heart, too…you can really tell the communities appreciate the opportunities Panera is providing them with, and how people who live in that community help another. Good stuff, and thanks for reading, Amy! 🙂

  4. Kelsey

    Can I just say, out of all of the places that would do this I am glad that it’s Panera! I agree with Jana, this is a good working experience for those who haven’t worked as well. It’s funny, when I was younger my parents would always joke around when we would go out to dinner and say “You’re buying right?”..when I would say I had no money they would respond with, “Roll up your sleeves, looks like you’re doing dishes!”. Looks like they weren’t joking now! hahahaha
    Some of those uplifting stories are incredible. What a great thing Panera is doing. 🙂

    • Eric

      🙂 If I could’ve use that “Mom-ism” in my blog post a few weeks back, and kept it relevant to something, boy, I’d have done it. It’s a funny concept, thinking of being caught penniless and having to earn the meal by way of sweat equity. Agree on the stories. It’ll be interesting to see more and more as they continue to involve and affect the communities in which they’re built.

  5. Mandy Kilinskis

    I’m glad to hear that Panera Cares is doing so well! It’s refreshing to see this working during our recession. I like that they’ve added the hour of volunteerism, too. It’s an excellent way to pay it forward and give back self-worth. I hope they have nothing but continued success! 🙂

    • Eric

      The self-worth is what means the most, I’d say…it’s no different than a normal Panera store, and doesn’t immediately connotate someplace sad folks go to reluctantly receive a charity handout. They can earn their meal without feeling bad about it. It’s sad our recession (why in hell they just didn’t up and call it a depression bets me) necessitated the resurgance of the “soup kitchen” or “bread line,” but positive in that someone stepped forward to help others help themselves. Hope they do well, too, Mandy. Fingers crossed.

  6. Jill Tooley

    This is such a great idea! Kudos to Panera for implementing a program like this. It beats the hell out of a soup kitchen, and the food’s probably worlds better to boot. I know I wouldn’t mind paying a few dollars extra so that someone less fortunate could enjoy a meal as well. I just hope people don’t abuse the system and ruin this for others who actually need it!

    It’s so great that there’s one in Chicago now, too. 🙂

    • Eric

      It makes you wonder, Jill, at what point would they forego a donation and just ask someone to spend an hour of their time volunteering? Feasibly, you could donate a penny and still call it a donation under the suggested asking value. Who’s to say. The greater good usually more than makes up for it. Cheers to having one in Chicago. I know the city will take it on, and proudly so.

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