Dearborn, Michigan – The plan went like this: The menus at Panera Cares Cafe wouldn’t list prices, only suggested donations, and rather than handing money to a clerk, customers would drop their coins and bills into donation bins at the counter.
They could pay the full suggested price. Or pay more. Or pay less — even nothing — if that’s all they could afford.
But it would be a place where everyone who needed a meal could get one.
The unspoken question was could the cafe sustain itself — pay its bills and cover its costs — when its survival depended on customers doing the right thing? Or would people choose to eat for little or nothing, even when they could afford to pay?
In many ways, “it was a test of humanity,” says Ron Shaich, president of the Panera Bread Foundation and executive chairman of Panera Bread company (PNRA). “We didn’t know if people would help each other or take advantage.”
Now, after assessing the cafe’s first year of performance, the foundation has its answer.
Not only will it continue the Dearborn Panera Cares Cafe and others in Clayton, Mo., and Portland, Ore., it plans to launch more locations in other cities, adding to a growing number of pay-what-you-can cafes being opened around the country by churches, community groups and other benefactors.
“To put it simply, these are nonprofit community cafs of shared responsibility,” Shaich says. “They will only survive and self-sustain if people in those communities do their part.”
Getting that message out to the public is key to the cafe’s success.
It’s done through signs in the dining room and through employees, who embrace the cafe’s social mission.
“We try to build relationships with people,” says Colleen Kincaid, who manages the cafe here.
“We rely on those repeat customers — people getting coffee on the way to work or coming in for dinner with their families. In order for this to work, people have to do the right thing,” she said. “You give what you have, and if you have a little bit of extra change, you might toss it in. It’s hard to ask in a society where we’re more used to taking.”
But given the chance, many people will gladly help.
“We get customers who realize what we do, and because of it, they frequent here,” Kincaid says. “The bulk of customers start out just coming in to eat, and after a while they start to buy in.”
To discourage abuse of the system, people are asked to take only one free meal per day.
And “if they come in a couple of times a week, we ask that they volunteer,” she says. “It helps them not feel like they’re taking advantage.”
As signs in the cafe say, “We are not about a handout. We are about a hand up for those who really need it.”
The company estimates that about 20% of patrons give more than the suggested donation, about 20% give less or nothing, and about 60% leave the suggested amount.
A clerk adds up each order and tells customers the suggested amount. If the customer is using a credit card, the clerk asks how much to charge.
On average, the cafs are breaking even, taking in about 80% of the retail value of the food, which is enough to pay expenses, says Kate Antonacci, Panera Cares project manager.
“That’s the only way they will stay open. These are not free cafes. . . . Once (customers) really understand what we’re trying to do, that leaving just a quarter more will help the person behind them, people will understand that this is an easy way to help somebody out.”