Rise of the "Pay What You Want" Restaurant

Panera Bread, an emerging chain restaurant behemoth, has jumped on the "pay what you want" idea with some concept stores where instead of paying a bill customers are told to "take what you want, leave your fair share." As the NY Time reports it;

Some will call it a hot trend, others a pipe dream, but the notion of letting diners choose what they pay for their meals has been gaining traction over the last decade as an outgrowth of the organic food movement and the advent of social entrepreneurs — those who believe that making a profit and doing good are not mutually exclusive.

The intention is that these restaurants will take in enough cash to cover their expenses. If money is left over, restaurants embracing the concept say they plan to use it to help needy people by feeding them or giving them jobs.

The One World Spokane restaurant is based on this same concept, following the lead of One World Everybody Eats in Salt Lake City;

Founded in 2003, One World Everybody Eats in Salt Lake City is one of the oldest pay-what-you-want restaurants, and like Mr. Peretz, its operators have found the concept a bit challenging. It is now owned by a nonprofit group and suggests customers pay a small amount, say, $4 for a meat or fish entree.

“I used to let people put their money in a basket and make their own change, but then I went to a lockbox,” said Denise Cerreta, the cafe’s founder. “You learn how to cut down on the people who will take advantage of the concept.”

About 15 to 20 of the roughly 60 meals it serves each day are given away to needy customers, some of whom wash windows, sweep or break down boxes for an hour or so in return. “They leave here with a full stomach and feeling like they earned their meal, which is the idea,” said Giovanni Bouderbala, the head chef and director. 

The general theme of much of the media attention I've seen both in the Times article and in the article the Spokesman ran a couple months back is that the model can be a bit perplexing for customers. (Note to Spokesman Review: It's easier to find your article on One World Spokane by using Google than it is using your web site search function. Actually I couldn't find it on your in house search interface, but Google returned it as the top result. Just some friendly feedback.)

Rod Dreher describes his angst about the concept;

On second thought, I wouldn't go to this restaurant because of the new set up. Too much of a head game. I would pay too much, for the reason I just mentioned, but would then spend a postprandial hour or two afterward hating myself for being a chump.

I'm having coffee tomorrow with one of the folks from One World Spokane. I'll follow up with some of their perspective on this growing trend.