Good News: Lunch Not Free After All

There’s a little good news about people in this tough world. Some months ago, St. Louis-based Panera Bread Company (which operates the St. Louis Bread Company stores and cafes) opened a store where people pay what they want for their food. It was a daring experiment by the company’s charity foundation. Many sceptics, including me, have predicted the venture would soon run out of money because they doubted people would actually pay what their lunch was worth.

The idea is to allow those with little means to get a decent meal for little or no money. The company hoped that those who had access to greater resources would make up the difference. According to Kavita Kumar of the St. Louis Post Dispatch newspaper, the experiment seems to be working.

“Company executives say they are pleased to find that customers have been paying about 85 percent of the retail price of menu items since Richmond Heights-based Panera Bread Co. turned this cafe in May into its first nonprofit community cafe.

A friendly greeter tells customers how the place works. Customers pay what they think the meal is worth, and that anything extra helps the company provide much needed food to those in need.

“Ron Shaich, Panera’s executive chairman, admits that he was skeptical at first, too, unsure whether people would pay when not required to. But four months into the experiment, he says the results have renewed his faith in humanity.

“‘Are people responsible?’ he asked. ‘My answer is in sum — on total — most people have stepped up.’

“It’s been a roller coaster ride to be sure, he said. He recalled his rage early on when he saw a group of teenagers put $3 on a credit card for $40 worth of sandwiches.

“‘You have those moments that beat you down,’ he said. ‘There are people who game it. … But most people are fundamentally good.'”

Company officials believe most of those paying less than the suggested price, about 15% to 20%, are people struggling to get by. They say they hope this venture will make companies realize they can do more than just cut a check to charity.

While I am happily surprised by this report, I can’t help but think that such a cafe on Wall Street would go under in a week. Why is it those who have the most usually give the least?