An Inspiring Model for Making Some Dough

In the last year, Panera Bread has opened three Panera Cares Community Cafes nationwide, where customers “pay what they wish.” This initiative from the most successful of America’s “fast casual” restaurants is inspiring to me for what it reveals both in a new model of corporate citizenship and in human nature.

Panera franchises these new cafes to local nonprofits, which then staff them with both paid employees and volunteers. Suggested donations appear on the menu rather than prices, and customers “pay what they wish” by slipping their bills or change into donation boxes at the order counter. Customers who are experiencing financial hardship know that they can get a fresh meal by paying what they can afford (or nothing), and those who have more resources can donate beyond the suggested amount. In addition to sustaining the restaurant, any extra revenues can support the local nonprofit’s community initiatives.

With a year of operations to measure from, the results are heartwarming: Approximately 60 percent of customers leave the suggested donation, 20 percent leave more and 20 percent leave less.

As a human being, I’m left with a great respect for what Panera has had the vision to realize. As a natural products marketer, I of course can’t help but think of all the good PR attention this has brought the chain. It’s certainly engendered positive feelings in me toward the brand. I hope Panera’s example can inspire all of us to develop new models of creating good in the world.