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At 48 Panera Breads, You Can Pay Whatever You Want (Or Pay Nothing) For Your Turkey Chili

Can’t afford a hot meal? Panera will now give you one. It’s the latest in the company’s experiments in letting customers set their own price.

At 48 Panera Breads, You Can Pay Whatever You Want (Or Pay Nothing) For Your Turkey Chili

Go to any of the 48 Panera Bread cafés in the St. Louis area and you’ll notice something strange: You can pay whatever you want for your turkey chili. In fact, you could pay nothing at all, and that would be just fine.

In 2010, Panera Bread launched an experiment at one of its St. Louis locations: Instead of asking customers to pay a set price for their food like almost every other restaurant in existence, the store instead directed customers towards a sign at the entrance reading: "Take what you need; leave your fair share." Instead of asking for payment, cashiers give customers a receipt telling them how much the item would normally cost; patrons can decide how much they want to pay, and leave their cash in a donation box (they can also swipe a credit card).

When that first Panera Cares café opened, Ron Shaich, co-CEO of Panera Bread and president of the Panera Bread Foundation, told USA Today: "My hope is that we can eventually do this in every community where there’s a Panera." Today, there are five nonprofit Panera Cares cafés spread across the country—all of which use day-old unsold baked goods from other Panera cafés. The bread is sold fresh.

The 48 Panera cafés taking part in the new experiment won’t switch over to an all-donation model. Instead, they’ll only offer turkey chili bowls (normal price: $5.89 with tax) on a donation basis. Everything else will stay the same—for now. According to the Associated Press, Panera could expand the turkey chili experiment to all of its 1,600 locations if it goes well.

The Panera Cares cafés have been surprisingly successful, pulling in up to 80% of what the regular cafés make. That’s enough to make a profit. The hope with the new experiment is that Panera will make enough to cover the cost of the turkey chili—and use the rest of the cash to pay for local hunger programs. Anyone in need of food would do well to snag a bowl of the chili, which has a satiating 850 calories.

Panera is far from the first restaurant to have a donation-based initiative. Café Gratitude, a small chain of vegan cafés in California, offers a single donation-based item (suggested minimum: $3). The Karma Kitchen, a volunteer-run restaurant in Berkeley, California, offers a donation-only menu. But Panera is a huge chain—one that is almost as recognizable as, say, McDonald’s or Starbucks. If the company can prove that a donation-based model works on a large scale, other restaurant chains will undoubtedly be watching.