Panera’s cafe for charity starts to pay off

Sometimes, people need a little extra nudge to be good.

At the experimental, pay-what-you-want St. Louis Bread Co. store in downtown Clayton, that nudge often comes from Terri Barr, one of the cheery greeters who explain the unusual concept to customers. When patrons ask whether this is the “free place,” she sets them straight in a warm but firm tone.

“Well, it’s not free,” she tells them. “If everybody pays below the (suggested) price, then we can’t help people in need.”

And when a few freeloaders come by every day — twice a day even — she asks whether they would like to volunteer for an hour to help the cafe carry out its charitable mission.

But the vast majority of people don’t need the extra push.

Company executives say they are pleased to find that customers have been paying about 85 percent of the retail price of menu items since Richmond Heights-based Panera Bread Co. turned this cafe in May into its first nonprofit community cafe. The store is run through the company’s charitable foundation.

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