Today's post is inspired by an article in this week's Time Magazine. It discusses Cares Café, a non-profit branch of Panera Bread located in Clayton, Missouri. Cares Café serves the same food as all other Panera restaurants, but allows you to pay your own price. The idea is that affluent customers will pay at or above the "requested amount" (the price charged at other Panera restaurants), allowing those facing tough financial times to pay less. Customers can also volunteer at the café to cover the cost of their food. If Cares Café makes enough money to cover its costs, then I think that it is one of the best non-profits I've ever heard of. It has the potential to be a self-sustaining organization that provides a basic service to those in need.
If everyone were to pay the "requested amount", either in cash or in volunteer time, then it would require absolutely no charity on the part of anyone, including Panera. It would simply allow those in need to pay for their food by volunteering. This is effectively employing people who need extra money and paying them in food, increasing their incomes. Unlike traditional forms of charity, this model doesn't just help those poor enough to go to a soup kitchen. It also benefits those who are better off, but in need of some extra cash to make ends meet.
Even if everyone doesn't, or can't, pay the costs of the food they eat, this model still has great promise. Panera is a hugely successful restaurant, so we already know that people will choose to eat there. If some of the affluent customers pay above the "requested amount", then someone who cannot pay the requested amount is able to buy food at a discounted price without requiring charity from Panera.
I am eager to see the model succeed without needing charity on the part of Panera (admittedly an unlikely occurrence). This would mark the birth of an organization which is both profitable and charitable. I don't see any applications of this model outside of fast-food style restaurants (where volunteering would be effective because, I assume, minimal training is needed for most positions). However, if other establishments in this niche adopt this model, then food will be more affordable to those experiencing hard times without requiring corporate benevolence.