When one of the oldest Panera Bread bakery-cafes in the city opened its doors Thursday morning, it looked pretty much like your typical Panera, with one big exception: the cash registers were gone, and it's now called Panera Cares Cafe.
Employees in red polo shirts and clipboards welcomed patrons to explain the change, even though there are the regular prices up on the menu. It's just a suggestion; people pay what they can afford.
"It's not free," one worker explained to someone who came in. "We just ask that you give what you can afford to pay."
Richard Curtis is a regular at this location, which opened in 1995. Almost every morning, he meets a group of eight or nine friends for coffee.
A clerk explained to him that instead of the usual $2 or so, that was just a donation.
He handed her a $10 bill.
She made change for the $10 and handed it all back to him, then gestured to orange donation bins on the counter. He threw in a bit more than two dollars.
"I think it's a great concept," he said. "The average person wants to do as much as they can to help someone."
If you can't afford anything, you can volunteer an hour's work for your meal.
Others wondered if the cafe means more homeless people will visit this location, especially in the winter.
Panera co-founder, chairman and co-CEO Ron Shaich pointed out that this location is not the first Panera Cares cafe to be located in a city with a large homeless population.
"This is for the one in four Americans that experience food insecurity," Shaich said. "Only one in ten of those are homeless.Of the folks with food insecurity, about 25 percent own their homes and another 25 percent are college-educated."
—Co-CEO Ron Shaich
This the fourth such location in the country. It's not scientific by any means, but I sat and watched people pay this morning. Everyone I saw paid more than they owed - many rounded up and threw in their spare change, but others threw in a few extra dollars.
Panera says the other three Panera Cares Cafe locations, which have been open in Clayton, MO; Dearborn, MI and Portland, OR for the past two years, have made a profit.