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A few years ago, Panera Bread tried an interesting experiment: the company opened a restaurant where people could pay whatever they wanted -- even nothing, if they couldn't afford to eat. The restaurant, called a Panera Cares Cafe, opened in a St. Louis suburb in 2010 (followed by two others in Clayton, Missouri and Portland, Oregon), and the model has been so successful that the company is now expanding the concept to other cities nationwide.
Panera is clear that the cafes are not designed to be a hand-out. The menus include suggested donations, which customers place into bins at the counter. While people can opt not to pay, they are asked to only take one free meal a day or volunteer at the cafe instead.
According to USA Today, Panera estimates that about 20 percent of customers give more than the suggested donation, about 20 percent give less or nothing and about 60 percent leave the suggested amount. On average, the cafes are breaking even, taking in about 80 percent of the retail value of the food, which is enough to cover operating costs.
Ron Shaich (pictured above), executive chairman of Panera Bread, called the experiment a "test of humanity" and his gamble worked. Not only are the Panera Cares Cafes expanding, his dignified approach to feeding the less-fortunate has inspired a new breed of pay-what-you-can restaurants opened by churches and community groups throughout the country.