At ‘Panera Cares,’ a test of human nature

When Panera Bread opens up at Government Center this month, a few key elements will be missing from the bakery and sandwich shop: There will be unattended collection buckets instead of cash registers and “suggested donations” instead of prices.

The store is the latest iteration of a worthy social experiment by Panera founder and co-chief executive Ron ­Shaich, a Brookline resident, to test human nature and, in the process, provide a new way to help feed the hungry.

At the four existing Panera Cares cafes — in Missouri, Oregon, Michigan, and Illinois — about 60 percent of customers pay the suggested amount for their meals, around 20 percent give more, and around 20 percent pitch in less or nothing at all. With its new Boston location, Panera Cares is taking a few additional risks. Instead of converting an existing retail location — with its built-in paying customer base — into a not-for-profit cafe, it is building from the ground up. In addition, Shaich picked the location because of its close proximity to the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, where the need for low-cost food, especially during the winter, is already high.


Shaich is betting that the generosity of residents will overcome whatever challenges the location presents. Hopefully Bostonians will honor the faith Shaich has placed in them and rise to his challenge.