Restaurants Where You Set Your Own Price

Shareable.net recently featured a blog post by Kelly McCartney about pay-what-you-can cafés. The concept is simple but profound: all guests who come through the door are welcome and entitled to enjoy a good, healthy meal, and those who are able to pay what they can afford. Most important, those who can’t pay anything are just as welcome as diners who pay more than the suggested prices. The concept isn’t new and there are a handful of small restaurants employing this model across the United States. However, the concept received a big boost from Panera Bread, which in 2010 began operating the first of three Panera Cares community café under its nonprofit foundation arm.

Kelly’s article lists tips that Panera’s founder, Ron Shaich, learned about how to successfully operate such a café. The first recommendation is to operate as a nonprofit:

With this set-up, customers get that whatever extra they pay goes back into the community to support those in need. It gives them not only a certain ease, but a sense of participation in the cycle of sharing.

I understand this point. If a corporation was running the café I’d be less likely to pay my fair share than if a nonprofit is running it. It gives me more confidence that profits aren’t being funneled to far-away investors. But I’m also a bit saddened by this point, because my sense is that this is a limiting factor. My vision for the world that I want to live in is one where everyone has, at a minimum, the basic resources that they need to survive (and, even better, to thrive). By this standard, people shouldn’t go hungry. Period.

It’s important to understand the cause of a problem before jumping to solutions. While I’m not an expert on hunger, I do know that a couple of the contributing factors are food waste and the huge level of wealth inequality in this country. And although I’m confident that the solution to hunger is more complex than opening more pay-as-you-can cafés, there’s a definite appeal of providing more places where people who need to eat can be fed, regardless of their ability to pay.

Which brings me back to my initial point: I see the recommendation that pay-as-you-go eateries be established as nonprofits as a limiting factor. In a society where profit is often the motivation, there’s a different status that’s assigned by relegating these establishments to the do-gooder realm. I’d love to see kinds of enterprises proliferate, precisely because their payment schemes help advance a more just, caring, and socially equal society.

I’m curious to know whether these businesses simply can’t work as for-profits, or if they can’t work as for-profits if they’re owned by large corporations. (According to its website, Panera, a publicly-traded company, has 1,493 locations in the United States and Canada.) Like many people, I’d probably like to have a free lunch if it’s at the expense of some distant CEO who I don’t know and who I assume to be far wealthier than me.

But what if the owner of this pay-what-you-can business were someone who lives in my neighborhood, whose children attend the same school as my kids, and who I’ve chatted with in her restaurant? Would I be trying to score a free meal at her expense? Or might I willingly give what I could, understanding that my payment would be contributing to local economic vitality, strengthening a web of trust, and helping to build a gift economy that embraces a mindset of pay-it-forward instead of everyone-for-himself? And maybe, if I had some extra cash, I’d throw a bit extra in the donation box, knowing that I’d be subsidizing a meal for someone who couldn’t afford to eat at a conventional restaurant.

Maybe this is just utopian thinking on my part. I commend the Panera Bread Foundation for taking this bold step in creating successful pay-as-you-go cafés. And I’d love to see this expand far beyond the social responsibility initiatives of corporate foundations to a new model adopted by businesses everywhere.

Check out the full article on Shareable.net, which discusses the philosophy of these enterprises and some of their variations, and includes links to other pay-it-forward restaurants and videos.

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