ST. LOUIS — Panera Bread plans to add at least two more pay-what-you-want cafes later this year, part of what the restaurant chain calls its effort to help feed the hungry in a dignified way.
Panera spokeswoman Kate Antonacci said Thursday that the locations for the new cafes won't be announced until spring. One could open by summer, the other in the fall. A third site is also being considered for later this year.
St. Louis-based Panera has long provided food for the needy. Its Operation Dough-Nation program donates millions of dollars in unsold baked goods each year, but the company wanted a more direct connection in its communities.
Ron Shaich, president of the Panera Bread Foundation and executive chairman of Panera, was among those who spent nine months assessing differing ways of assisting the hungry — soup kitchen, community cafes, meals at churches and other efforts.
Panera opened its first pay-what-you-want cafe in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton in May 2010. Two others have followed, one in Portland, Ore., and one in Dearborn, Mich.
The pay-what-you-want cafes have the same decor, the same menus as the chain's other 1,500 restaurants. The lone visible differences are signs in the three stores encouraging charity and explaining the concept. At the Clayton store, an employee stands at the door greeting those who enter and spelling out how the cafe operates.
"We know these cafes are not going to eliminate hunger," Antonacci said. "But we can set an example for other companies, that we can be an innovative solution to food insecurity. We're offering high-quality food in a warm, caring environment. We're going to deliver that experience whether or not they're able to pay."
The concept is simple: Panera lists a suggested price for food, but the customer pays what he or she wants. Antonacci said most pay the suggested price. About 15 to 20 percent of customers pay more, while about the same percent pay less or nothing.
It's enough for the three existing pay-what-you-want cafes to essentially break even, Antonacci said.
Any profit goes to local programs in which people are trained through internships at the cafes. All four interns who graduated through the St. Louis County program are still working at various Panera restaurants, Antonacci said. Both intern graduates in Portland also work for Panera. The Dearborn store recently went through a management change and has not yet had any interns through the program.
Antonacci said even more pay-what-you-want cafes will likely follow in years to come.
"As long as this continues to work we hope to open one every three or four months," she said.