Panera Bread Offers “Pay-What-You-Can” Option

These days, corporate social responsibility is pretty well a must-have for most businesses. Consumers are looking for more from brands than ever before, seeking transparency, increased customer service, and simplicity.

Being able to showcase sustainability or a way of giving back also tops the list of consumer criteria, explaining why one-for-one brands like TOMS shoes and Warby Parker glasses are gaining widespread support and customer approval. In an effort to highlight their focus on sustainability, AT&T released its 2011 sustainability report in a colorful, digital, interactive format targeted at both consumers and investors. Everyone wants to feel like they’re supporting a greater good when they’re supporting a brand.

But an article I read recently about Panera and its take on giving back to local neighborhoods was really impressive. I wasn’t aware, but currently four Panera locations — in Missouri, Oregon (Portland), Michigan, and, most recently, Illinois (Chicago) — are operating under the “pay-what-you-can” model.

This means that Panera customers at these locations (which are part of the Panera Bread Foundation’s Panera Cares program) are asked to pay more than the price of their order if they’re able to, while those who aren’t able to pay for their entire order can pay less. For those who can’t pay anything, there’s an opportunity to volunteer at the cafe for an hour in order to receive their meal for free.

These four Panera cafes — though they look and generally operate identically to other Panera locations — are actually special Panera Cares Cafes.

Not only is this a heartwarming initiative, it’s also a business-savvy one. All Panera Cares Cafe locations so far have made a profit since implementing this approach, and the money is funneled back into the foundation to help fund social service organizations that provide job training for at-risk youth.

Panera’s co-founder and CEO (and president of the Panera Bread Foundation), Ron Shaich, attributes the success of the cafes to the fact that they’re based on a successful business model.

“We have the skills to operate these cafes,” Shaich told ABC in a 2011 interview. “We operate 1,600 cafes around the United States. We have the capabilities to do this.”

One of the best things about these Panera Cares Cafes is the dignity they offer. Folks in need can get a delicious meal in a clean, well-maintained restaurant, surrounded by people who you’d find in any Panera cafe, rather than having to shamefully wait in line for what could well be sub-par food at a soup kitchen.

I was already a Panera fan, but this news sealed the deal.

Bonus feature! Watch Shaich discuss this initiative during a 2010 TEDx talk in St. Louis:

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