By Haley Behre
Typically, when one walks into a Panera Bread café to purchase a Tomato and Mozzarella Panini, he or she would wait to order their food, move down the counter to wait for their food to be prepared, and then walk over to the cash register to pay. In St. Louis, this is no longer the case.
The St. Louis based company has retained its original name, St. Louis Bread Company, in its hometown, despite the expansion of the company into a chain that has changed its name. However, as of Sunday, May 16, the café’s location in Clayton, Missouri, right outside of St. Louis, has renamed itself St. Louis Bread Co. Cares. It is now a not-for-profit location. Here, after being handed a Tomato and Mozzarella Panini, a customer would not walk over to a cash register. If the customer did, he would discover that the restaurant does not list definite prices for any of the items. Instead, there are suggested prices, and a sign hanging saying, “Take what you want, leave your fair share.”
The concept is to let people decide how much money their food is worth, and pay accordingly. If the customer wanted to pay a penny they could; if they wanted to pay $100 they could.
“The idea is that the people with real need are able to get a discount,” said Kate Antonocci, the Project Manager of St. Louis Bread Co. Cares. “The people who really need it don’t have to pay as much and the people who can pay a little more can help cover those who cannot cover it.”
This is the first store Panera Bread has launched under a pay-what-you-want structure. If everything goes well and the location can financially be successful, the St. Louis location will not be the last. Panera Bread plans to open stores like this countrywide, according to Antonocci.
According to Antonocci, it is about shared responsibility in a community. People cannot come in and abuse it because if they do, it will not stay because they will not be able pay the bills.
St. Louis Bread Co. Cares is not the first “pay-what-you-want” restaurant in the United States, although all of these restaurants have different rules and ways of running, Antonocci said. When Panera Bread came up with the idea, the people in charge visited similar stores around the country that are already successfully established to draw ideas.
One World Everybody Eats is a non-profit organization founded by Denise Ceretta. Ceretta wanted to eliminate hunger and food waste, as well as build a community and help people who worry about where they will find food. She started One World in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Today, one World Everybody Eats has seven successful community cafes nationally. The newest addition will be Comfort Café, in Denver, Colorado, which will focus on comfort foods. It is scheduled to open this summer. While all seven stores have different ways of functioning, they all hold the same basic principles: no set prices, the need to help, and the sense of community.
“You should have a point of accountability. Someone should actually collect the money to cut down the number of people who take advantage,” says Ceretta, “I’ve learned this.”
The new Panera Bread understands this as well. According to Antonocci, the café has donation boxes set up because they want people to feel some level of accountability. If someone cannot pay a fair price, there are alternative ways to pay for the food. One could volunteer their services to St. Louis Bread Co. for an hour and receive a free meal voucher.
A Better World Café, in Highland, NJ, has a volunteer program too. But they also offer an alternative for those who are really strapped for cash and do not have enough time to volunteer. A Better World Café offers a complementary meal, said Rachel Weston, the Executive Chef and Executive Manager of the restaurant.
“Good food should be available for anyone, no matter their means,” said Weston.
According to Weston, the café wanted to create a sense of community and wanted to offer more than just food for the people. Through the volunteer program, people can acquire culinary skills, which can help them get a job.
Panera Bread’s St. Louis Bread Co. Cares hopes to implement a similar program in time. They would like to use any extra money from food donations to directly give back to the community the restaurant resides in. Antonocci said they want to give customers who are less fortunate the skills they need to perhaps go into the food service industry.
Ceretta agrees. She said that the reason many donation restaurants have programs set up for customers to volunteer for food or for customers to learn skills is because it is supposed to be about community. These restaurants are meant to foster a giving relationship, but both sides have to be willing to give a little, and not just take.
“Everyone who comes to the door is like a friend,” says Ceretta, “a friend will help a friend, but if it is one sided it will not be a working relationship.”