Panera Wants to Know If People In Boston Are Heartless Jerks

At the new Panera Cares cafe in Government Center, customers will pay what they can.

Panera is hoping to prove that we’re not all a bunch of selfish, self-involved monsters. At the chain’s newest cafe at Government Center, where there are no cash registers and customers are pay what they can afford in an attempt to feed the needy, the question is clear: Does Boston have a heart?

Set to open January 23 across the street from City Hall and a short walk from the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, this will be the fifth Panera Cares location in the country. A non-profit spinoff of the Panera Bread company, Panera Cares has been operating pay-what-you-can cafes in Missouri, Michigan, Illinois, and Oregon since 2010. So far, the signs have been encouraging. The company reports that 60 percent of customers pay the suggested price, 20 percent pay more than the suggested price, and 20 percent pay less or nothing at all. This breakdown means that the stores are, thus far, self-sustaining and can continue to serve the needy.

But will people in Boston follow in the same footsteps and pay their fair share so that the less fortunate can get a free meal, or will customers see this as a scam to get a tasty Panera sandwich on the cheap?

Panera Cares project manager Kate Antonacci says she expects Bostonians will step up to the plate. “We’re confident that those numbers will hold,” she said, “given what we know about the neighborhood. We need to make sure this is a sustainable operation.”

Customers who need a meal but don’t feel comfortable with grabbing a sandwich for free can volunteer for an hour instead of giving a donation. This allows those with hunger needs to take advantage of the program and still eat with “dignity,” according to Antonacci.

So what happens if someone in an Armani suit and a Rolex shows up for lunch every afternoon and takes food without giving anything back? Antonacci says that managers will keep an eye on repeat customers to help make sure no one takes advantage of the system. (Dammit.)

“We try to limit people to one shared meal a week unless volunteering or donating,” she says. “This not meant to be a permanent handout.”