The idea was that customers who could pay more would subsidize those who needed free or discounted food. Now the project is basically over, a blow to the idea of conscious capitalism.
In 2010, Panera’s nonprofit arm launched a new experiment: It opened a cafe in St. Louis that looked exactly like the company’s other restaurants, but customers could pay what they wanted for the items on the menu, or not pay at all. Ron Shaich, Panera’s founder and CEO at the time, had volunteered at food banks and wanted to offer a better experience for people who were struggling to eat. The new nonprofit restaurant, called Panera Cares, was designed to sustain itself by nudging middle-class consumers to pay a little extra for their meals.