Panera Cares Boston, its last pay-what-you-can store, is closing

After six years, Panera is closing its last pay-what-you-can cafe. The fast-casual restaurant chain once operated five such locations, called Panera Cares, where customers were free to pay as much — or as little — as they wanted for meals. The idea was to provide all customers with high-quality food and a safe place to eat regardless of their ability to pay.

But despite the company’s best intentions, the pay-what-you-can model didn’t seem to work.

“Despite our commitment to this mission, it’s become clear that continued operation of the Boston Panera Cares is no longer viable,” a company spokesperson told Bloomberg, which first reported the news, in an emailed statement. “We’re working with the current bakery-cafe associates affected by the closure to identify alternate employment opportunities within Panera and Au Bon Pain.”

On a January episode of NPR’s Planet Money, Panera founder Ron Shaich said he had the idea for Panera Cares after seeing an NBC special about a Denver cafe called SAME — short for “So All May Eat” — that lets customers pay suggested prices for food. “I fundamentally believed that there were enough good people in the world that they would do the right thing,” Shaich said, adding that he “particularly loved torturing the cynics” who said there was “no way” his idea would work. “Our whole idea here was not simply to create another homeless shelter or another soup kitchen. It was actually to have a real meal, and a real meal with dignity.”

The first Panera Cares opened in Clayton, Missouri in 2010. Four additional locations in Chicago, Boston, Portland, and Dearborn, Michigan opened soon after. By this year, only the one in Boston was left.

According to Shaich, more than half of the customers paid the suggested price, and roughly 20 percent paid extra. Another 20 percent paid less than the suggested price or didn’t pay at all, often because they couldn’t afford to do so. But financial viability was just one part of the problem. Shaich said there were some problems with profiling. “People would walk in and [staff] would assume, based on how they looked, how they were dressed, potentially … the color of their skin,” how much they were going to pay. After a few months, Shaich began requiring employees to undergo sensitivity training.

Customer complaints were another unexpected issue. Former Panera Cares employee Sharon Davis told Planet Money that a customer once complained about the homeless customers who frequented the location. “She comes up and goes, ‘Oh my god, these people stink. I can’t stand eating like this,’” she said, “And I said, ‘Well, I’m really sorry, but they are entitled to a meal.’”

As Bloomberg points out, other businesses have faced similar issues while trying to become more inclusive. Baristas at Starbucks, which started letting anyone use its facilities without purchasing anything after an incident last year where an employee called the police on two black men who were waiting for a friend, recently complained that the company’s “third place” policy was forcing employees to do things that weren’t in their job description. Several employees reported finding used needles in store bathrooms and having to dispose of them without proper equipment. Starbucks responded by saying it would install needle disposal boxes in certain locations.

Panera employees similarly found themselves dealing with issues they weren’t qualified to handle, like mental health issues and drug use in the cafe’s bathrooms, according to the Planet Money interview. Davis, the former Panera Cares employee, told Planet Money that she and her coworkers often served as de facto social workers as well and would refer customers to shelters and rehabilitation centers.

Despite Shaich’s best intentions, Panera Cares was a temporary solution to the symptoms — not the causes — of poverty and inequality.

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