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Panera Bread's pay-what-you-want cafes are slowly multiplying.

Associated Press


Ayear ago, Panera Bread Co. converted a store in this St. Louis suburb to a nonprofit pay-what-you-want restaurant.

The idea was to help to feed the needy and raise money for charitable work.

Panera founder and chairman Ronald Shaich said the cafe, operated through Panera's charitable foundation, has been a big success, largely because of people like Rashonda Thornton, who paid $10 for a $7 meal.

Most patrons pay retail value or more. Panera statistics indicate about 60 percent leave the suggested amount; 20 percent leave more; and 20 percent less. One person paid $500 for a meal.Panera's success in Clayton has led it to open two similar cafes - one in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Mich., and one in Portland, Ore. It plans to add one every three months.

"From the day it opened, the community has just gotten stronger and stronger in their support of this," Shaich said. "They got that this was a cafe of shared responsibility."

Inside the store, signs and employees explain the pay-what-you-can concept.

The menu board lists "suggested funding levels," not prices. Payments go into a donation box, though the cashiers provide change and handle credit card payments.

"If a man in a suit and tie leaves a dollar for a $10 meal, that's fine," Porter said. "We don't know his story."

Only a few take advantage of the system. He still fumes over watching three college kids pay $3 for $40 worth of food. Generally, peer pressure prevents that sort of behavior, he said. "It's like parking in a handicapped spot," Shaich said.

Overall, the cafe performs at about 80 percent of retail and brings in revenue of about $100,000 a month.

That's enough to generate $3,000 to $4,000 a month above costs, money being used for a job training program for at-risk youths.