Panera Bread Co. has ended its pay-what-you-can test of one item on a regular bakery-café menu Wednesday, saying it may bring it back seasonally.
From March 27 through Tuesday, 48 retail bakery-café units in the St. Louis area offered Turkey Chili in a Bread Bowl on the pay-what-you-can platform, said Kate Antonacci, Panera’s director of societal impact initiatives. The retail value was $5.89, and customers could give more or less at the cash register.
“We view this test as successful,” Antonacci told Nation’s Restaurant News. “We were looking to learn what would happen when you put it into a larger market. … Our goals were to try to see if it was an effective way to feed people who are in need.”
The “Meal of Shared Responsibility” test differed from the Panera Bread Foundation’s five Panera Cares Cafes in Boston; Chicago; Clayton, Mo.; Dearborn, Mich.; and Portland, Ore., which operate entirely on donations.
“What we saw as weeks turned into months, particularly as we pulled out some of the in-store communications that were up for about six weeks,” Antonacci said, “we were feeding less people who were in need. The program, without constant communication support, became almost invisible and participation in the program — both in people who were ordering it and in contributions — declined.”
Antonacci said Panera served about 15,000 turkey chili bread bowls during the course of the test. “Economically, it was sustainable,” she said.
Adjustments for a broader rollout will likely offer the pay-what-you-can item for shorter periods, perhaps as a seasonal offering, she said, adding that a possible span would be four to eight weeks.
“Layering this into a regular Panera Café, it becomes just one of many efforts going on at one time,” Antonacci said. “We realized that this does work better as a burst of sustainable discussion as opposed to an ongoing, permanent, indefinite program.”
Antonacci also noted that most of the St. Louis Bread Co. cafes where the item was tested are in middle- to upper-income suburban neighborhoods, and “aren’t the first place the food-insecure go if they need help.”
“We will really continue to use it as a way to raise funds and awareness about those people in need,” Antonacci said. Generally, Panera found that payments for the item averaged about 75 percent of the retail value.
Panera Bread had 1,673 bakery-cafés as of March 26. It operates under the Panera, St. Louis Bread Co., and Paradise Bakery and Café brands.