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Panera ends pay-what-you-will meal at St. Louis locations

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 10, 2013: Panera Bread Co. has stopped offering its "meal of shared responsibility,” an initiative to combat food insecurity that had been introduced in March at its 48 St. Louis Bread Co. cafes. The program had allowed customers to set their own price for turkey chili served in a bread bowl.

Kate Antonacci, who directs such initiatives for Panera, said that after reviewing the program's impact, the company pulled the chili from the menu for now, with plans to revamp the concept and re-introduce it next winter.

Though the meal had a suggested price of $5.89, customers could pay what they wanted. The goal was to feed people in need but also to raise awareness of food insecurity and to let people to help one another, Antonacci said. If enough people donated more than the suggested price, it would offset the cost for those who didn't pay the full price or who made no contribution.

Since its launch, 15,000 of the meals were ordered throughout the St. Louis region. During the initial three weeks, donations amounted to more than 100 percent of the suggested price, eventually falling off to an average of 75 percent -- enough to make the program economically sustainable for Panera, she said.

She said the program lost steam once the initial wave of publicity passed and in-store signs introducing the meals were replaced with the usual promotions for new menu items.

"As you would expect, the people of St. Louis were very generous, particularly at the beginning of the program,’’ Antonacci said. "As weeks turned into months and as we pulled down in-store communication we were feeding relatively few people in need. Without that constant presence and dialogue in the cafes, the meal became almost invisible and participation declined.”

Antonacci said that Panera has not abandoned the donations-only concept and is considering relaunching the meal of shared responsibility in early 2014 as a seasonal menu item offered for a limited time with proceeds to benefit the Feeding America food bank network.

"It probably works better with a burst of discussion,” she said. "Without sustained communication,over time both participation numbers and contribution numbers slipped.’’

Antonacci said the program was more heavily used at several sites -- downtown,

Soulard and the Delmar Loop -- though even those numbers declined over time. Although food insecurity is a regional issue, the program was infrequently used in the company’s suburban stores.

The meal of shared responsibility was pulled from the menu at the close of business on July 9, with stores posting information to that effect on Sunday, she said. Store managers were also encouraged to warn regular consumers of the program that it would be ending and to give them resources for food assistance.

Antonacci said the program had always been considered an experiment. It was seen as just a part of the company’s efforts to fight hunger, including its “Day-End Dough-Nation” program that contributed unsold baked goods worth $17 million to charities in 2012. The St. Louis-based company also opened a nonprofit café in Clayton in 2010 where customers make donations instead of paying set prices for the same menu items available at its 1,700 stores nationwide. The company has since opened four additional nonprofit cafes in Detroit, Portland, Ore., Chicago and Boston.

Antonacci said Panera remains committed to fighting hunger, including the nonprofit cafes, and considers the meal of shared responsibility a successful learning experience.

"We are constantly innovating around this issue of hunger and this is an example of that,’’ she said. "I think you will see us keep trying. We are exceptionally committed to the issue.”

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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