Panera Bread, the nationwide restaurant chain, has opened a new “pay-what-you-can” cafe in downtown Boston, called Panera Cares.
The concept is simple: diners pay what they can afford. So if a meal normally costs $5.00, the customer can pay that price, a little more, or a little less.
Store ambassadors greet customers when they come in to explain how things work, but it can be a little confusing.
“I don’t even know what’s going on. I’m just hungry,” a befuddled customer named Javier said.
Here’s how it works: customers order their food, just like at a regular Panera, but then the cashier tells them the suggested price. Customers can decide how much to pay, and either put their money in a donation box, or tell the cashier how much to charge their credit card.
The Panera Bread Foundation has four other Panera Cares locations in St. Louis, Detroit, Portland, Oregon and Chicago, and the founder Ron Shaich says the system works because the people who can afford to pay more, often do.
“All they have is a responsibility to do the right thing. And you know what’s amazing? So many people do,” Shaich said.
The breakdown of what people pay is about 60-20-20: 60 percent of people pay the suggested price, 20 percent pay less, 20 percent pay more.
Since opening in January, the Panera Cares in Boston has been taking in slightly more than that national average.
Panera officials say the chain already donates about $100 million in food and cash a year. But Shaich wanted to become more involved in the issue of food insecurity – the 50 million Americans and one in four children who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
“This isn’t an issue of simply of homelessness,” Shaich said. “Twenty-five percent of people with food insecurity actually own their own homes, 24 percent are college grads. It’s endemic when you have a country that is 8 to 9 percent unemployment.”
It’s a job requirement that all of the employees at the Boston Panera Cares location understand the issue.
“We’ve all experienced food insecurity one way or another, either personally or we know someone is experiencing it,” said cashier Yetunde Bankole.
Panera Cares workers are also trained to deal with a population that is in need.