Share story

ST. LOUIS — More than a month ago, Gene Cumberland began a daily habit of ordering the turkey chili in a bread bowl at St. Louis Bread’s downtown location.

He liked the taste. But he liked the price even more: whatever he could afford.

For the homeless man, the experimental pay-what-you-want program — which allowed customers to pay more or less, or nothing, for a hot bowl of chili at all of its local stores — provided what was often his only meal of the day as well as a peaceful respite from the streets.

“I try to pay what I can,” he said this week. But on that day, he didn’t have any cash.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

As of Wednesday, however, Cumberland will be looking for another place to eat. Panera Bread, which operates in the St. Louis area as St. Louis Bread, has pulled the plug on what it billed as the “meal of shared responsibility” after launching the innovative program 15 weeks ago. But the company is working on a plan to bring back the program for a limited time next year.

The program was to build on the Sunset Hills, Mo.-based company’s efforts to help feed people in need and raise awareness about food insecurity.

In 2010, Panera opened in Clayton, Mo., its first nonprofit bakery-cafe, a concept that’s been expanded to four other locations nationwide.

At the nonprofit stores, there are suggested prices, and patrons can pay whatever they wish for any item.

But unlike those stores, the meal program failed to gain as much traction.

“It didn’t do badly,” said Ron Shaich, Panera’s chief executive. “We just didn’t feel we were making as much of a difference as we would have liked.”

Some locations experienced heavy usage. But Shaich said the program was not being used much in the vast majority of its stores.

Shaich emphasized that the program was sustaining itself, so the decision to end it wasn’t based on costs. But after the first six weeks, it began to lose momentum, and both donations and usage started to decline, he said.

Food-industry analyst Ron Paul wasn’t surprised by the program’s termination.

“It’s a tough concept to pull off,” said Paul, president of Chicago-based Technomic. “We haven’t seen this idea spread, which by definition says it isn’t working that well or others would be doing it.”

At the same time, Panera, as a publicly traded company, is facing constant pressure to boost sales and to keep its stock going in an upward trajectory, he added.

“Something has to give,” he said. “It’s a matter of balance.”

Still, Panera is not abandoning the pay-what-you-want model. Its five nonprofit cafes remain in operation. In addition to the Clayton one, the others are in Dearborn, Mich., Portland, Ore., Chicago and Boston.

The chain is tweaking the meal of shared responsibility to be a seasonal, limited-time offer that would likely span six to eight weeks. Panera has other charitable endeavors. Its Operation Dough-Nation program has donated tens of millions of dollars in unsold baked goods.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.