Panera Puts a Lid on Its Pay-What-You-Want Chili Program

Nearly four months after adding its pay-what-you-want turkey chili meal to menus in 48 Panera Bread stores in the St. Louis area in March as part of the chain’s larger anti-hunger initiative, the franchise suspended the program as of Tuesday night. The official reason was to “achieve goals more effectively to feed more people,” says Kate Antonacci, Panera’s director of societal impact initiatives. The company plans to retool the program and reintroduce it as a seasonal, limited-time offering in early 2014. The cafés served 15,000 of the meals, the Associated Press reported.

One major problem the program faced was demographic: Most of the locations carrying the chili, which was conceived for needy customers, were in middle-class and affluent areas, where the Panera faithful had no problem forking out $5.89 for a meal. Not to mention the fact that summer is hardly ideal for selling hearty, 850-calorie chilis served up in piping hot bread bowls.

But there was also the simple fact that customers weren’t aware of the program’s presence. After marketing efforts quieted down about six weeks after the program was launched, awareness and participation went with it. Unlike the five nonprofit Panera Cares cafés, where the whole menu is pay-what-you-want and communication efforts are more intense, this was just one program in regular Panera stores that were promoting several other dishes and deals, says Antonacci. The chili offer simply fell through the cracks.

Despite all these factors, Antonacci says the program was financially viable. The average payment on the chili bowl was 75 percent of retail value, according to the St. Louis Business Journal, about the same rate collected at Panera Cares cafés, which provides enough profit to run a job training program.

Panera is still working out how the program will be “retooled” and whether it will stick with chili, but they stand by the program’s test run as a bona fide success. “We learned a great deal about how it functions in regular Panera cafés,” says Antonacci. “It’s a test of human nature.”

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