It sounds kind of wild, but the multi-billion dollar corporate franchise Panera Bread is turning some of their restaurants into pseudo-soup kitchens. It's an experiment and it's never been tested by any major restaurant chain before, but customers at "Panera Cares" cafés simply pay what they can, no questions asked.
Rumor has it that the Panera Bread location next to Trader Joe's in Hollywood will be converted to a Panera Cares café, featuring volunteer staff members, "suggested" prices, and a free meal for anyone who needs one.
The flagship Panera Cares café opened in St. Louis in May, with impressive results. The non-profit restaurant model is the brainchild of Panera's former CEO and current chairman Ronald Shaich, who says that most customers (60-70%) pay the full price of their meal, while about 15% pay more than the suggested price and about 15% pay less or nothing at all.
Success in St. Louis means more locations across the U.S., beginning with two new Panera Cares cafés in the next two months. Rumors put a café in Detroit, slated to open in December, and a café in Portland, slated to open in January 2011.
If the Hollywood Panera Bread converts to a Panera Cares, the major changes would be door greeters—who would stand at the entrance to explain the pay-what-you-can concept—and donation boxes instead of cash registers. Those who needed a free meal could volunteer for an hour and earn a meal voucher, but they could also simply order their food and move on.
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