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Panera Bread lets diners 'pay what you can'

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ZUMA Press/Newscom/File

(Read caption) Two-year-old Emmett Quigley stuffs dollar bills into the Panera Cares Cafe donation box as his aunt, Julieanne Quigley, reads the mission statement of the shared responsibility restaurant. Panera Cares Cafe, a unique nonprofit community restaurant, opened in Portland, Ore. Cafe guests order and then are presented with, not a totaled bill, but a 'suggested price.' Many guests pay that figure, some pay more to subsidize the effort, and some pay a reduced total or nothing at all.

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After a year, Panera Bread's experiment with "pay what you can" restaurants seems to be working. The cafe chain now has three locations using the donations-only model (Clayton, Mo., Dearborn, Mich., and Portland, Ore.), out of its nearly 1,500 locations nationwide.

"We were doing this for ourselves to see if we could make a difference with our own hands, not just write a check, but really make a contribution to the community in a real, substantive way," Panera founder and Chairman Ronald Shaich told The Associated Press. The program, which Panera calls "Panera Cares," is an example of a "community kitchen," the AP says, in which for-profit companies act in part like nonprofits.

Most patrons, it finds, drop the entire retail cost, or more, into the voluntary donation box, in essence subsidizing a meal for someone who can't pay the full amount. Panera says about 60 percent leave the suggested amount; 20 percent leave more; and 20 percent leave less. The largest single payment so far? One person paid $500 for a meal.

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