Bruce Horovitz of USA Today Newspaper has reported on the conversion of a Panera/St. Louis Bread Company Café (the original name of the store that became the Panera franchise) to a pay-what-you-can enterprise:
A sign at the entrance says: “Take what you need, leave your fair share.” Customers who can’t pay are asked to donate their time. The cafe opened Sunday and will operate seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
While the store does have cashiers, they don’t collect money. They simply hand each customer a receipt that says what their food would cost at a conventional Panera. The receipt directs customers with cash to donation boxes (there are five in the store). Cashiers do accept credit cards.
The founder of the Panera chain, Ron Shaich (who just stepped down as the company’s CEO) hopes to create a non-profit ‘Panera Foundation’ with such cafés in each of its markets across the country. From Mr. Horovitz’s interview: “It’s a fascinating psychological question,” says Shaich, who says he’s dreamed of doing something like this for years. “There’s no pressure on anyone to leave anything. But if no one left anything, we wouldn’t be open long.” So Shaich is trying his hometown first, then taking what he learns throughout the franchise. Though some are betting against the plan.
Some consultants interviewed point out that the all-day/every-day plan to allow customers to pay what they can is likely to lead to an uncomfortable mix of clientele who might eventually drive away those who can and will pay. The rejoinder, of course, is that if those people like Panera, they will likely patronize another establishment. Thus some sort of profit-sharing might be in order, as all the franchises could profit from the cafés and the good will they generate.
The British band Radiohead are generally considered the first to make the large-scale, open-ended ‘pay-what-you-can’ appeal with their 2007 album In Rainbows. Moreover, Horovitz points out the fact that many local restaurants have made such offers on a regular basis, albeit (say) a few hours each week. But can the move by this particular Panera start a movement? Christopher Leonard at The Huffington Post believes so. Certainly Panera is the largest national brand to make such a move.
According to Shaich, the only difference on the menu is the fact that day-old breads are used. Hardly a deal-breaker in most people’s minds. What might be of particular interest is that, as Shaich aptly put it to USA Today, “I’m trying to find out what human nature is all about.” The restaurant is in a pretty upmarket part of St. Louis, though a number of city administration buildings draw in people from other parts of the city. Thus, we can not help but wonder if the experiment will have more to do with mixing up economic classes (at least for a lunch hour) than it does with who pays how much. Or might the restaurant become an outlier zone within an otherwise affluent Clayton, MO.? Might the expectation become ‘free food,’ which will likely lead to a race to the bottom, just as free music has encouraged the mass production of three-minute GarageBand loops passing as music? Radiohead are still going strong – and selling albums. Those things that come with related stories and art and liner notes and… Oh, never mind.