US restaurant Panera that offers a ‘Pay What You Can Afford’ system

Perhaps it is a sign of the times, where food prices are on the increase, salaries are falling or frozen, and jobs are under threat, that pushes people into making extraordinary gestures. Take the U.S restaurant Panera; here is a company that has no cash registers, no prices, just a simple donation box with a sign next to it telling patrons to “Take what you need; leave your fair share”.

Customers - American Restaurant that offers a 'Pay What You Can Afford' system

And the amazing thing is, while the most cynical of people might think that customers would take advantage of this system, the restaurant actually makes a profit in each of its stores across the States. This is because many customer who can afford a little extra to help pay for those who may fall short of their bill do so, and on a regular basis.

customer eating - American Restaurant that offers a 'Pay What You Can Afford' system

The first Panera restaurant opened in a St. Louis suburb back in May 2010, and there are now five other such restaurants operating throughout the U.S, that serve an estimated one million people.

The director of Panera’s Societal Impact Initiatives – Kate Antonacci, explains that the restaurants are a way to provide a decent meal for American who have little or no money: “These cafés prove that people can eat in a warm and welcoming place, and be served the same food as everyone else,” says Antonacci. “It’s not compromising the experience, but just changing who would be able to access that food.”

a staff servicing customers in an American Restaurant that offers a 'Pay What You Can Afford' system

And statistics show that while 20% pay less than the suggested donation or nothing at all, 60% pay the suggested amount, whilst 20% pay more than the cost of their meal.

The location appears to be a large factor in how well the Panera restaurant is doing, as smaller restaurants in close-knit communities tend to get a little weary of paying more after the first few months, however, where there is a regular amount of tourist footfall, and a good downtown office crowd, the diversity of the patrons seems to help the longevity of the project.

Staff waiting to server customers

There have been problems however, with students from a nearby college coming into the restaurant and abusing the system, by ordering multiple meals and leaving without offering a payment. The manager of the restaurant eventually met up with the school’s principal who had to send letters home to various student’s parents, which appeared to placate the situation.

Customers eating in an American Restaurant that offers a 'Pay What You Can Afford' system

It was also discovered that many first timer patrons did not understand the system and to clarify, Panera set up a meet and greeter at the door who explained what the restaurant was all about, before they ordered. Other problems arose from the staff themselves, as they felt so passionate about the cause, that they would sometimes get frustrated and judge customers who, in their minds, were acting unfairly.


The Panera experiment has worked so well that there are plans to roll it out more extensively throughout the other Panera restaurants in the U.S. Currently, as part of a test in their regular restaurants, Panera began adding a pay-what-you-want item, so patrons can now order turkey chili in a bread bowl at 48 stores around St. Louis and decide for themselves how much to pay for the item.


Panera’s mission statement is “Panera Cares® community cafes exist to feed each person who walks through our doors with dignity regardless of their means.”

To find out more visit their website at PaneraCares.org.

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