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A grand experiment is playing out in the heart of Clayton. At 10 S. Central, a small sign —one that reads “Saint Louis Bread Co. Cares”—marks a big change. Back in May, the restaurant chain made national news when it announced its charitable foundation would operate the Clayton spot under a new business model: Pay what you want. Unlike at other locations, the prices here are merely “suggested donations,” with the idea that the haves’ generosity and have nots’ needs can balance out to make the café self-sufficient.
“I’m trying to find out what human nature is all about,” Panera executive chairman Ron Shaich told USA Today when the company first launched the initiative.
So far, human nature has proven to be a mixed bag.
As of early October, the Clayton location was reportedly breaking even. Many have applauded the initiative, praising the for-profit chain for filling a need during the recession. Others are more skeptical, questioning the company’s motives: Why wouldn’t Panera open a community café in a less affluent area? Is the chain’s new concept a publicity stunt? How much sales-tax revenue is being lost?
More potential challenges loom as Panera considers expanding the concept to other locales. In mid-October, at the same time the company was making plans to add a restaurant at Plaza Frontenac, the Post-Dispatch reported that the city of Frontenac had tried—without success—to pass an ordinance to ensure Davis Street Land Company, which owns Plaza Frontenac, would cover any sales tax not collected from a nonprofit tenant. (For the record, Panera spokeswoman Linn Parrish told the Post-Dispatch the company hadn’t planned to try the community café approach there.) For now, it remains to be seen how far Panera’s new concept will spread.
Meanwhile, northeast along Forsyth Boulevard, the Regional Business Council is using another model dubbed “venture philanthropy.” St. Louis Social Venture Partners, now on the brink of its 10th anniversary, takes an entrepreneurial approach to charity: It gives grants to select educational nonprofits, then analyzes and monitors the operations to ensure their longevity. “It’s run very much like a business,” explains business council member Patricia Whitaker, CEO of architectural and interior design firm Arcturis. Even those nonprofits that aren’t selected must undergo a rigorous application process—which itself can yield good results. The venture program’s founding chair, Maryville Technologies president and CEO Joe Blomker, recalls a charter school that flourished with a little advice.
Among a broad range of altruistic efforts in St. Louis (see p. 89), these are just a few organizations trying a fresh, 21st-century approach to charity, one that applies for-profit means toward nonprofit ends.
Call it the invisible hand…outstretched.