A Restaurant Tries The Honor System

June 4th, 2010 by Kathy McManus

At one Panera Bread, customers are asked simply to pay what they can.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

“Take what you need, leave your fair share.”

That’s the new policy at a Panera Bread café in suburban St. Louis, where diners are asked to pay what they want for their food, leaving the money in a donation box—and leaving some wondering if a restaurant can successfully serve up a side order of responsibility.

“Some will call it a hot trend, others a pipe dream, but the notion of letting diners choose what they pay for their meals has been gaining traction over the last decade,” The New York Times reports, fueled in part by social entrepreneurs “who believe that making a profit and doing good are not mutually exclusive.” The goal of such non-profit restaurants is to cover expenses, using any remaining money to provide food and jobs for people in need. At Panera, customers who can’t pay for their meals are asked to volunteer at the restaurant.

Panera CEO and founder and Ron Shaich told USA Today that he’s “trying to find out what human nature is all about” by placing the honor system at the top of the menu. “There’s no pressure on anyone to leave anything. But if no one left anything, we wouldn’t be open long.”

Critics, however, question whether charity can be a restaurant’s bread and butter. “I don’t think the honor bar system will work nationally,” says trends consultant Marian Salzman. “While young people are very much attuned to helping out and making a difference, if they find themselves sitting next to other customers with whom they don’t feel comfortable, they’re not coming back.”

If you were one of the haves subsidizing the have-nots at a non-profit restaurant, would you contribute the full cost of your meal?