Saint Louis Bread Co. offers model for profitable charity

At Friday evening’s opening plenary session for the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative University conference, fashion mogul and HIV/AIDS awareness activist Kenneth Cole spoke of the need to fuse business and public service into one mission. Often the interests of corporate America are viewed as diametrically opposed to those of community or social activists, but the actions of one St. Louis-based restaurant chain prove this assumption wrong. Less than two weeks before the weekend’s conference, Saint Louis Bread Co. (aka Panera Bread) announced an expansion of a pay-what-you-want menu item to all 48 of its bakeries/cafes in the St. Louis area.

The concept got its start almost three years ago at the Clayton location of Saint Louis Bread Co., a nonprofit cafe where all menu items are priced on a pay-what-you-want scheme.

The idea has been modified with its expansion into all St. Louis-area locations. The first offering includes turkey chili in a bread bowl, serving up 850 calories—roughly half of daily dietary guidelines.

Part of the rationale behind the plan is to spark a conversation about global hunger issues. Approximately 15 percent of American households had difficulties providing enough food for the entire family in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Of course, whether wealthier consumers will abuse the discount or pay the meal’s suggested retail price is up for debate. To date, the pay-what-you-want restaurants have brought in enough money to run at a profit as well as maintain job-training programs.

In a similarly structured pay-what-you-want sale of the Christmas holiday pack of the popular card game Cards Against Humanity, only 20 percent of customers opted to take the pack for free, and the game’s developers made a handsome profit of $70,066.27, even after discounting for manufacturing mailing fees. So applaud Saint Louis Bread Co. for offering a potentially free meal to patrons who may be in need of a free meal or two, but remember that it is a business and still aims predominantly to profit from its sales.

By expanding the pay-what-you-want concept, Saint Louis Bread Co. may increase appeal to a younger generation of consumers that increasingly favor “socially conscious values in the things they purchase,” as Ken Harrington, director of the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

While the new menu addition may not precipitate a flood of students to the Delmar Loop Saint Louis Bread Co. location, the program suggests that we can do more than choose between simply doing good and making a profit. If internalized, this lesson could have a great impact on the future careers and aspirations of our student body. We should take it to heart and realize that we making money and giving back isn’t an either-or prospect.

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