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

This story first 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:

1. Make it non-profit – With this set-up, customers get that whatever extra they pay goes back into the community to support those in need. It gives them not only a certain ease, but a sense of participation in the cycle of sharing.

2. Make it real – If the customers know the real value of the items on the menu, they can feel comfortable paying full price or, perhaps, a bit more when they can. Shaich keeps it simple with soups, salads, and sandwiches.

3. Make it human – By putting a welcoming face out front, it's harder for customers to try to score a free meal just to “screw the man,” as Shaich puts it.

4. Make it authentic – Don't just talk the talk of a do-gooder. By also walking the walk, the customers and employees will take it seriously and actively support the venture.

Though it may well be the most successful and prolific, Panera Cares was not even close to being the first pay-what-you-can café on the scene. Shaich cites the SAME Café in Denver, Colorado, as providing some inspiration for him. Like Shaich, Libby and Brad Birky, the founders of SAME – which stands for So All May Eat – got to the idea by way of volunteering at food banks and shelters. Here, patrons can exchange an hour of service for either a meal or a gift certificate. Of course, they can also contribute cash or other in-kind donations to the cause. Libby Birky explained, “No matter their means, we treat people with dignity. They return the favor.” According to Brad, that dignity encompasses the food itself: “We cook simple, high-quality food. We reject the notion that only an elite deserves to eat well.”

At the forefront of the pay-what-you-can action stand Denise Cerreta and her One World Everybody Eats Foundation whose motto is to offer those in need “not a handout, but a hand up.” In 2003, she opened the One World community kitchen/café in Salt Lake City, Utah, from which the broader foundation blossomed. In those footsteps, other community kitchens with a pay-it-forward policy have followed, such as the Karma Kitchen in Berkeley, California, and The Forge in Abilene, Texas.

Flash forward to 2011 and, in addition to having helped SAME and hosting the annual One World Everybody Eats summit in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Cerreta has advised more than a dozen eateries in Alabama, New Jersey, Missouri, Texas, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington state, each with their own unique circumstances. Just as Shaich outlined, the volunteer element is key to the formula because it both provides a way for people with limited funds to contribute and a way for people with limited work experience to gain ground there. Cerreta said, “When a paid staff slot opens, we go straight to our volunteer list and hire from that roster.”

The community restaurant movement got a little extra oomph recently when rock star Jon Bon Jovi opened his Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, New Jersey. Sure, the suggested donation and volunteer option are both present. But, with a focus on more than just food, Soul Kitchen also emphasizes conversation and community as part of its mission which includes “eliminating hunger, building relationships, celebrating community action and unity, promoting sustainability, and extending encouragement and opportunity to those in need.” Part of the restaurant's manifesto explains the name: “At Soul Kitchen, a place is ready for you if you are hungry, or if you hunger to make a difference in your community. For we believe that a healthy meal can feed the soul.”

In Santa Rosa, California, Evelyn Cheatham took the reverse route and got to a slightly different place. The first step was setting up Worth Our Weight, a culinary apprentice program for at-risk youth. “Developing great lives through good food” is the order of the day there. The tuition-free, volunteer-run program accepts young people between the ages of 16-24 “who have faced major challenges in their lives, including foster care, difficulties with the law, homelessness, and significant family disruption.” Though Cheatham offers training in the culinary and restaurant management arts, imperative life lessons are gleaned, as well, including team work, accountability, mutual respect, and responsibility. Basically, WOW changes lives in deeply tangible ways.

Though they ask for a fair donation in exchange for the food they serve, the café, which is open a limited number of hours each week, operates at a net loss. Still, it provides an invaluable service as a community outreach tool and more. According to Cheatham, “The café is a natural component of the program. It sets the program apart from being a school. It is the natural extension of a vocational training program. The feedback from a customer provides us with an instant learning experience.” So popular are WOW's weekend brunches, celebrity chef Guy Fieri featured them on his Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives – the first non-profit restaurant ever showcased on the Food Network show.

No matter what the means, the end goal is the same in each of these cases: feeding people as a community service. And, when nearly 15 percent of households in the U.S. are faced with food insecurity, that's no small goal. In fact, it's bigger than any one person, any one project. But, considering the fact that Americans waste upwards of 25 percent of their food, it's not hard to formulate an equation where everyone gets to eat. It simply requires using an algorithm rooted in the common good or, perhaps, springing from the undeniable reciprocity of the Golden Rule. That is exactly what is happening here. These folks at the heart of the movement understand the momentous task at hand and are intent upon doing their part to keep things moving forward. As Cerreta observed, “This is spiritual franchising. I want to create a big enough snowball that it keeps going without me.”


Community kitchens, cafés, and restaurants to support around the U.S.:

A Better World Café - 19 South 2nd Ave., Highland Park, New Jersey 

Café 180 - 3315 South Broadway, Englewood, Colorado

Comfort Café - 3945 Tennyson Street, Denver, Colorado

Community Table Café - 418 Cerrillos Road (in the Design Center), Santa Fe, New Mexico

Karma Kitchen - at Taste of Himalayas Restaurant, 1700 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, California

Karma Kitchen - at Klay Oven Restaurant, 414 N. Orleans Street, Chicago, Illinois

La Cocina - 2948 Folsom San Francisco, California 

One World Salt Lake City - 41 South 300 East, Salt Lake City, Utah 

One World Spokane - 1804 East Sprague Ave., Spokane, Washington 99202 

Panera Cares Community Café - 22208 Michigan Avenue, Dearborn, Michigan

Panera Cares Community Café - 4121 NE Halsey Street, Portland, Oregon

Potager - 315 South Mesquite St., Arlington, Texas 

Ransom Café - 7485 Airport Blvd., Mobile, Alabama 

SAME (So All May Eat) Café - 2023 East Colfax Ave., Denver, Colorado 80206 

Soul Kitchen Community Restaurant - 121 Drs. James Parker Blvd., Red Bank, New Jersey 

St. Louis Bread Company Cares - 10th Central Ave., Clayton, Missouri

Table Grace Café - 1611 1/2 Farnam Street, Omaha, Nebraska  

The Forge - Abilene's Community Kitchen 2801 S. 1st Street, Abilene, Texas

Three Stone Hearth Community-Supported Kitchen - 1581 University Avenue, Berkeley, California

Worth Our Weight - 1021 Hahman Drive, Santa Rosa, California


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