Jun 28

Panera Bread’s “Pay What You Wish” Store is Pretty Awesome

Photo Credit: Ohdearbarb (Flickr.com)

If there’s one thing I would like for us to be remembered for in the 21st century, it’d be that we stopped worrying about squeezing a profit out of everything we do in the world of business and started using our resources to make the world a better place.

Panera Bread (known as the St. Louis Bread Company in these parts) is doing just that with their experimental store in Clayton, MO, where they encourage customers to “pay what you wish” for items. I read about it via the AP, and I’m actually surprised how quiet they’ve kept the concept as they’ve tested it; many of the people I’ve talked to who live or work within a few minutes of the store have had no idea that they’re doing it.

But everyone I’ve mentioned the store too has had the same reaction: “That’s really cool!”

Here’s how it works: Customers come in to the “Community Cafe” and place orders for items that have “suggested prices.” Only the honor system requires the customers to pay in full. The chairman of Panera, Ronald Shaich, estimates that 60 to 70% of people pay the suggested price, 15-20% pay less, and 15-20% pay more (some even leaving larger donations to show their support of the concept).

The store is run by a nonprofit organization called Panera Cares, and it’s being treated like an experiment that has the potential to fail. Panera plans to put more of these cafes in upscale locations that are accessible to lower-income customers. Clayton, which is one of the nicest parts of St. Louis, is served by the MetroLink and is just a few minutes away from some older, poorer neighborhoods. In other words, Clayton is a nice intersection of well-off business people and hard-times families who need a break.

I really admire Panera for attempting this experiment. They’re not the first to do it (other Community Cafe concepts have sprung up in Denver and Salt Lake City), but they’re the first to be considering doing it on a national scale. Panera has always been very good about donating day-old bread and pastries to local community organizations, but now, they’re taking the whole idea one step further. In the article, Shaich talks about how the company is attempting to use its core competencies to make a real difference in the world, and not just to generate publicity.

I’ve often thought about how so many companies use charity foundations as a tax write-off instead of for real benevolence. Every now and then, you get something cool, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the Ronald McDonald House. But most of the time, you get a lot of money being funneled into organizations that don’t seem to be all that efficient at improving life for the everyday individual.

Panera, on the other hand, seems to get it. And I know that when I consider lunch at the St. Louis Bread Company, now, I’ll try to stop by the Community Cafe more often. Having such a positive example of the good things corporates can be doing will serve as a wonderful influence on me… and putting my money into that system will benefit the community positively as well!

What are your thoughts? Post them below!

Some articles on the topic: