Panera Finds Faults in Altruism as it Suspends Part of ‘Pay What You Can’ Campaign


Panera Bread is suspending part of its experiment in consumer altruism because the “pay-what-you-can” platform for a single item at a handful of stores was mis-targeted and got lost amid the cacophony of the brand’s other promotions.

Panera said it may bring back on a seasonal or short-term basis a program it was testing in the St. Louis area in which it offered one menu item—in this case, Turkey Chili in a Bread Bowl—on the pay-what-you-can platform. The retail value was $5.89, Nation’s Restaurant News said, but customers could give more or less at the cash register. Payments for the items averaged about 75 percent of that value.

The company said it plans to continue the five Panera Cares Cafes in five cities that operate entirely on donations, including Dearborn, Mich. “About 60 percent of that cafe’s customers pay the suggested amount for menu items,” Dearborn store General Manager Colleen Kincaid told the Detroit News. “We encourage the full donation be met,” she said. “Anything beyond that allows us to feed those who are struggling.”[more]

Many Panera customers at the regular St. Louis stores missed the availability of the subsidized turkey chili because of the outlets numerous other promotions and offerings. “The program, without constant communication support, became almost invisible and participation in the program—both in people who were ordering it and contributions—declined,” a Panera spokeswoman told the trade publication.

Another flaw in the St. Louis effort was that the restaurants were located mainly in middle- to upper-income suburban neighborhoods that “aren’t the first place the food-insecure go if they need help,” the Panera spokeswoman said.

Not that Panera is abandoning efforts to extend its altruism beyond the five formerly pay-what-you-can stores. The chain will reconsider the St. Louis idea “as a burst of sustainable discussion as opposed to an ongoing, permanent, indefinite program,” the spokeswoman said. That might mean seasonal appearances—or something else.