Panera Doesn’t Offer a Free Lunch—It Offers Caring

Courtesy Panera Cares

What happens when a business does not require customers to pay for its products? Panera Cares would know. The community-based, pay-what-you-want, nonprofit arm of bakery-cafe chain Panera Bread opened its fifth store, in Boston, on Jan. 23. While the restaurants list suggested prices for the items, customers can pay more, less, or nothing. They can also volunteer time instead.

“People want to contribute something” even if they can’t pay money, says Kate Antonacci, project manager of Panera Cares. So every now and then, diners will toss alternate forms of payment—or expressions of gratitude—into the donation bin.

Jimmy Hoppers, now general manager of Boston’s Panera Cares, recalls that at the Chicago restaurant a war vet in his 40s left poetry in the donation bin two to three times each week. “They were about everything under the sun, love poems, loss poems,” says Hoppers. “You could have put them in a collection book.” Sorry, no odes to Panera.

Others regularly brought flowers—bouquets of lilies, orchids, and daisies—for the lobby. Sometimes they were fished out of the dumpster from a nearby Trader Joe’s, though they still brightened up the space.

Courtesy Panera Cares

A few patrons tossed pen and pencil sketches into the donation bin. Pranksters left fake currency: kids’ play money, tiny toy money, photocopied bills, and even confetti. “It’s not uncommon. Half the time it’s wrapped up with more than a normal meal’s cost in real bills. They just think they are going to be funny,” says Hoppers. “Why would you try? We’re not [asking for money] anyway!”

Even the work lunch crowd isn’t predictable. When the first Panera Cares restaurant opened in St. Louis in 2010, a few nearby offices each sent one employee down to order for the entire floor—and leave only a few dollars. By day two, the restaurant implemented a one-entree-per-customer policy for those who weren’t paying the suggested price, says Antonacci.

On its first day, the new Boston store took in 109 percent of the retail value of 700 transactions. The percentage tends to decline after opening week. So far, the four stores in Portland, St. Louis, Detroit, and Chicago are collecting an average of 75 percent of the suggested price, enough to cover operating costs. About one-fifth of diners pay less than the suggested price.

Occasional oddities aside, Panera sees the program as a sustainable way for communities to feed themselves, including people that cannot afford to buy food. As of now, “There’s no intention to close any of these down,” says Antonacci.

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