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Restaurants Where You Only Pay What You Can Afford? A Visionary Way to Bring Good Food to the Poor Is Taking Off

When the founder of Panera Bread opened his Panera Cares pay-what-you-can cafe, the model was a huge success.

This storyfirst appeared on Shareable.

If you were to only judge the world by watching the news, you'd think we had collectively lost all of our humanity, our intergrity. Neverending wars, devastating environmental disasters, punishing austerity measures... all of which impact the poorer among us more than the richer. Rare is the voice that speaks for the underprivileged. But, if you listen hard enough, you might just hear a little whisper out there in the distance.

Among those voices, Panera Bread founder Ron Shaich might well be the loudest. Last year, Shaich began an experiment in Clayton, Missouri. He opened a Panera Cares pay-what-you-can café and it has been an unqualified success, so much so that he has since opened two more locations – in Dearborn, Michigan, and Portland, Oregon. The goal, now, is to open one per quarter in diverse communities around the country – the geographical logic being that the folks with more means can help offset those with less.

And that logic has been borne out. Using the slogan, “Take what you need, leave your fair share,” the cafés are doing just fine. Shaich claims that an estimated 60 percent of customers pay suggested retail price, 20 percent pay extra, and another 20 percent pay less or nothing. The net average comes out to approximately 80 percent of suggested retail price and the shops generate revenues well above their costs. Interestingly, there are no cashiers and cash registers to tally humility or generosity, only greeters and donation boxes to preserve dignity and collect offerings. Further still, some of those who can't contribute monetarily offer their time and effort instead which, in turn, lowers operating costs for the business.

And it's all because Shaich gets the bigger picture: “The vision for the Panera Cares cafe was to use Panera’s unique restaurant skills to address real societal needs and make a direct impact in communities. Thus, the Foundation developed these community cafés to make a difference by addressing the food insecurity issues that affect millions of Americans.” More than 50 million, to be exact.

Though some might brand the effort as socialism, Panera Bread – what with its $4 billion market cap and 60,000 employees – is more an example of conscious capitalism in action. And, with the Panera Cares Foundation, Shaich spreads the wealth one step further in an almost commons-based venture where food is a right, not a privilege. Here, the stakeholders are valued alongside the shareholders. But that's not all. Shaich also aims to triple-leverage Panera's resources by feeding people who can't feed themselves, training and funneling at-risk youth back into the mainstream, and setting an example for other corporations to do more than simply write a check. As a result, both private (funding) and public (people) assets are brought to bear in a successful partnership rooted in sharing.

The idea came after Shaich and his family spent some time volunteering in soup kitchens, food pantries, and bread lines – a regular occurrence for the Shaich family. What he found there was not good. He recalled, "Standing in line outside in a bread line is dehumanizing and robs the people of any dignity they have. And for what? The meal they receive is terrible. ... My idea was that you should be able to eat a nutritious meal with the same dignity as everyone else, in the same place as everyone else. It would let you hold your head up high, and rebuild a bit of your confidence." 

Now that he's proven the model works, Shaich fields a multitude of phone calls from business owners wanting to know his secret. His four pillars are:

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