Posted on February 19, 2019

‘Pay What You Can Afford’ Runs Panera out of Bread

Rev. Ben Johnson, Acton Institute, February 12, 2019

Panera has announced that it will close the last of its charitable stores, which allowed people to pay whatever they wished for a meal, because it was costing too much dough.

The Boston store will shut its doors permanently this Friday, February 15. “Panera Cares” were indistinguishable from other Panera eateries in their branding, menu, or furnishings, except they announced that no one would be turned away if they did not pay one cent of the “suggested prices.” Those who could not afford to pay full price could volunteer for an hour at the store in exchange for the food.

The first store debuted in 2010 and, soon, they served 4,000 people a week. {snip}

Panera founder Ron Shaich said part of his motivation in opening the stores was “torturing the cynics, who were arguing” customers would pour in to enjoy “lunch on Uncle Ron.”

What happened next was predictable. Swarms of high school students helped themselves to lunch each Monday through Friday. The homeless dined there every meal, every day.

At one point, Shaich confessed the free riders nearly drove him to physical violence:

I can literally remember a couple of kids – local kids walked into our store in Clayton, Mo. And they walked up to the counter kind of laughing. And they said, I’ll have three smoothies and two roast beef sandwiches. And here’s my dad’s credit card. Put three bucks on it.

I just wanted to jump over that counter, and I wanted to grab the kid around the neck and whack him. And I just wanted to say, don’t you get it – right? – somebody else has got to pay.

So after offering an bottomless supply of potentially free goods, Panera Cares found itself forced to restrict supply…otherwise known as rationing:


Cafe managers met with the Grant principal and a letter was sent to parents. … Panera Cares now allows students to visit only after school hours.

Panera also educated the homeless about its mission. No one is no longer allowed to come every day, for every meal — only for a few meals a week.


Customers complained on Yelp that Panera used other disincentives to prevent misuse or overuse, including publicly shaming poor and elderly customers. Employees were accused of profiling, and Shaich ordered them to undergo “sensitivity training.”

The charity experiment produced other negative externalities: The homeless began injecting intravenous drugs in the bathrooms, and neighbors said residential crime increased. One employee remembered, “We’d open the door and look, and there’s blood everywhere. So then we’d have to close that bathroom.” By the end, the Boston location changed the code for the women’s restroom several times a day to prevent drug abuse.


The price model depended on having an equal number of people willing to pay more than the “suggested price” as those who paid less. The company assumed 60 percent of people would pay menu price, 20 percent would pay more.

But the Boston store claimed in January it earned 85 percent of its operating costs. (Its manager, Barry Combs, also confidently asserted, “I know it’ll be here in a year,” last month.) Other Panera Cares stores reportedly covered 60 to 70 percent of their expenses.


People simply believed multimillion-dollar corporations could, and would, pay any cost out of their endless vat of corporate profits. And ultimately, they killed the goose that laid the golden egg-on-brioche.


The closures of every single store due to insufficient funds “by no means means that this wasn’t a success,” he said.

But even Shaich admitted in 2018 that Panera Cares faltered, because “the nature of the economics did not make sense.”


Until 2010 the chain focused on maximizing profits and donating a percentage of food and money to extant charities serving those struggling with food security. That is, it followed the traditional Wesleyan formula, “Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can.” These undertakings will still bear fruit…and would likely would have done far more good for far more people than the handful of pay-what-you-wish stores.


Socialism does not understand scarcity or incentives. Eventually there are limits – and they come faster than even their most devoted supporters conceive. In time the well runs dry, economic activity ceases to be profitable, the food stops being served – and the vulnerable pay the real price.