Panera Bread Pulls 'Pay-What-You-Want' Chili

PHOTO: Panera Pulls Pay-What-You-Want ChiliJeff Roberson/AP Photo
The St. Louis Bread Company's parent company, Panera Bread, has pulled the "pay-what-you-want" chili program.

Panera Bread is halting its "pay-what-you-want" chili from its bakeries in St. Louis after 15 weeks, saying the company is "evolving the program."

The company introduced the "meal of shared responsibility" menu item in 48 stores, including its St. Louis Bread Co. locations in the metropolitan St. Louis area in March, allowing customers to pay whatever they wanted for its turkey chili. The program raised awareness about hunger issues and was a vehicle to feed people in need.

The company said that the decision to pull the program was not about cost as donations above the price were used to sustain the program. Panera sold about 15,000 turkey chilis, which averages out to more than 142 meals a day. Any excess revenue from the chili was intended for hunger-fighting charities, as reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

"It didn't do badly," said Ron Shaich, Panera Bread Co.'s chief executive, told the Post-Dispatch. "We just didn't feel we were making as much of a difference as we would have liked."

That difference Shaich is referring to includes informing customers about hunger issues, said Kate Antonacci, a spokeswoman for Panera.

The public firm has 1,673 company-owned and franchise-operated bakery-cafes in 44 states and Canada.

"We evaluated the program over the last couple of months," she said. "It worked and it's not about economic sustainability."

The question the company was left with, she said, was, "How do you sustain this program over time without very consistent communications support?"

Shaich told the Post-Dispatch that one challenge was the program's messaging took up a lot of space on in-store signs.

Antonacci says it's easy to have "consistent messaging" about hunger issues at its five non-profit cafes, operated by its foundation, Panera Cares.

"That's not the case in implementing one item in a regular store," she said. "We felt like it got a little bit lost as time went on and communication dissipated. We didn't feel like it helped us achieve our goal."

Still, she said the program was "extremely successful" because of what the company learned. Antonacci said the company hopes to bring back the program as a seasonal promotion, possibly even as early next year. The program would most likely return to the St. Louis area, though the company is looking at a couple core markets.

"We're not abandoning it," she said. "We're simply evolving as you often do when you're testing anything."