Local Cafe Helps Less Fortunate Afford Meals

Panera Bread Company
You will hear many stories this time of year of giving and sharing. But this one is different. It's the tale of a restaurant chain trying out a new recipe for giving. Not just during the holidays, but throughout the entire year. CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers reports on "The American Spirit Of Giving."

DEARBORN, Mich. - At Panera Bread Company -- the nation's best performing restaurant chain -- the breaking of bread with customers is an opening day tradition reports CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers.

"Some people cut a ribbon," said Ron Shaich. "We share bread."

But what's happening at a Dearborn, Michigan, store is decidedly non-traditional.

"We made a decision to take this store and literally give this store to the community - to make sure everyone gets a meal even if they can't afford one," said Shaich.

Panera Cares, as it's called, doesn't list prices on its menu board. It suggests donations, instead.

"You can leave more or less in the donation box," said a cashier.

The pay-what-you-can concept is founder Ron Shaich's way of offering more than a simple hand-out to those in need.

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"I'm only working part-time right now," said customer Tonya Zalenski. "So on days that I can afford it, it'll be great. And on days that I can't, I'll definitely take use of it."

"This isn't a soup kitchen," said Shaich. "It isn't a homeless shelter. It's a cafe of shared responsibility."

For some customers, the new concept can be difficult to grasp.

"What difference does it make if I pay $3.70 or $4 or if I paid you 25 cents," a confused customer asked the cashier.

In order for this experiment in human nature to work, customers able to pay have to sometimes be willing to donate more than their fair share. Panera's corporate reputation depends upon it.

"That was the big risk here," said Shaich. "Will the community step up?"

This Dearborn store is the company's second such store, the first -- opened seven months ago in St. Louis is doing better than skeptics predicted.

"Financially, it is working," said Brooke Porter, manager of St. Louis Bread Company. "We're making enough money to become self-sustained. We're able to pay the labor, the food, the rent."

In St. Louis, 60 percent of customers are donating the suggested amount, 20 percent are donating more, 20 percent donating less. Shaich says a restaurant's location is key to staying afloat.

"We have to be in communities in which there are both people that can sustain it, and people that can benefit from it," said Shaich.

Some companies do good to capitalize on the holidays or to clean up after a PR nightmare. But marketing experts say what Panera is doing makes no business sense -- which could be business genius.

"The best kind of PR is getting caught in the act of doing something good and this is a classic case of that," said marketing and communications expert Jeremy Jacob.

"It's easy to get behind feeding my neighbor," said customer Leanne Ridemour.

And it's that appetite for giving that Panera is counting on to help them give back.