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Panera pay-what-you-want program begins in St. Louis

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Panera Bread's turkey chili bread bowl is one of the items on its new "Meal of Shared Responsibility" menu. (Photo: KTVI)

Panera Bread's turkey chili bread bowl is one of the items on its new "Meal of Shared Responsibility" menu. (Photo: KTVI)

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – If you live in St. Louis, your lunch at Panera Bread could mean a world of difference to someone else. Or it could just be a lot cheaper.

According to KTVI, that’s the option the company’s area director Don Hutcheson is providing customers at all St. Louis Panera Bread locations starting Wednesday as part of the bakery cafe’s “Meal of Shared Responsibility” initiative.

The program is based around a customer pay option. A customer can either pay the suggested amount, pay whatever amount they feel like they can afford or pay more than the suggested amount to help cover the cost for someone else.

“We want to raise the discussion about food insecurity in the St. Louis area,” Hutcheson said. “And we want to provide a vehicle for those interested to help those in need. What we’re basically doing is asking people to step up and help their neighbor.”

Hutcheson said the program was launched due to the success of the company’s non-profit Panera Cares community cafes, which began in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton three years ago.

The cafes do not have prices. Instead, they provide suggested donation amounts, leaving it up to the customer to determine the price. Those without any means to contribute have the option of donating an hour of their time to volunteering in the cafe in exchange for a meal.

“It was a social experiment,” Hutcheson said. “And Clayton really stepped up, helping to self-sustain that bakery cafe. Now we’ve got five Panera Cares community cafes across the nation.”

If the new “Meal of Shared Responsibility” campaign ends up being just as successful, Hutcheson said “we may have the chance to roll this out nationally.”