Jonathan Diotalevi wasn’t sure what to expect when he walked into Panera Cares near Government Center on Wednesday, the restaurant’s first day of business. The recent UMass Dartmouth graduate said he doesn’t have a lot of cash and was just looking for a cheap lunch.
A smiling employee greeted Diotalevi at the door, he waited in line, ordered a tomato- mozzarella panini, and then asked the clerk, “So, can I, like, just give you two bucks?”
Yes, he could. And he did, dropping the money into a nearby donation bin.
The restaurant at 3 Center Plaza may have been as busy at lunch time as any of the chains’s other cafes nationwide — more than 1,600 of them — but there’s a reason cochief executive Ron Shaich calls this one “a test of human nature.”
The nonprofit outpost of Panera Bread Co. doesn’t have any cash registers, or set prices. Instead, it depends on donations from customers who pay whatever they can afford. The Government Center shop is the fifth of its kind for the St. Louis-based company — the first in this region.
“I think it’s awesome because it’s obviously beneficial for people who are a little less fortunate,” said customer Yanick Belzile of Lowell. “We can afford to, so we put in a little bit extra. If we can help someone else who can’t pay for a meal, why not?”
Belzile said he donated about $3 more than the suggested donation, or regular retail price, for half a chipotle chicken sandwich and a cup of broccoli-cheddar soup.
That kind of payment is typical, especially when a cafe first opens, according to Boston Panera Cares project manager Kate Antonacci .
“For the first week or so, we get total donations above retail value, between 105 and 106 percent,” she said. “That number goes down after the first two weeks and levels out to about 65 to 70 percent of retail value, with 20 percent of customers giving more than the suggested donation.”
As Antonacci predicted, most patrons on Wednesday were like Belzile — they happily paid a slight premium for lunch.
Wayne Gilchrist, who said he lives under a bridge in Cambridge, said he made a modest donation for a coffee and French bread with butter.
“I’m homeless,” Gilchrist said. “I got nothing and still gave because I want others to have.”
Though Antonacci said the restaurant was strategically located around the corner from the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, Gilchrist appeared to be the only homeless customer during lunch time Wednesday, which made him a minor media spectacle. Antonacci said people in need of nourishment can easily go unnoticed.
“People think food insecurity, or hunger, means homeless people, but the fact is only 10 percent of people experiencing food insecurity are actually homeless,” she said.
About one out of every six Americans, or about 50 million, are “food insecure” or have trouble coming up with enough money to buy food, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
“Many of those people work — some of them work two jobs,” said Antonacci. “Hunger affects people of all types, so it’s not only the destitute we serve. “
Shaich, the Panera cochief executive who lives in Brookline, paid a visit to the Boston Panera Cares to gauge the reaction on opening day.
Shaich said the idea behind the shops is to treat people with dignity, no matter what they can afford for a meal.
“Many of the places that give out food can be very negative,” he said, “but we had the potential to create a place with positive energy — a place that feels like every Panera in America.”
He said the Panera Cares experiment is helping counter some of the cynicism he sees in a lot of people.
“The truth is, when given the chance, most people will do the right thing,” he said
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Panera Bread Co. cochief executive Ron Shaich’s last name.