SAME Cafe inspires corporate chain Panera to offer its guests a pay-what-you-can option

A new cafe run by Panera Bread in St. Louis has caught the nation's attention. Why? Hint: It's not because of the bread.

The cafe, operating under the name St. Louis Bread Co., is a non-profit -- a pay-what-you can afford non-profit. Ring a bell? Cafe Society readers know that the pay-what-you-can model has been in use right here in Denver at the SAME Cafe. In fact, former Westword writer Jared Jacang Maher won a prestigious Beard award earlier this month for his profile of the Denver cafe, which Brad and Libby Birkey opened about three and a half years ago.

Former Panera CEO Ron Shaich says he got the idea for the Missouri restaurant from the SAME Cafe. According to the St. Louis Business Journal:

He first got the idea a year ago when he saw a story on NBC Nightly News about a café in Denver patterned after one started in Salt Lake City by Denise Cerreta, founder of One World Everybody Eats. It took a year to get the Denver nonprofit restaurant going. Shaich turned to his wife and said, "We open three stores a week. We can do this."

Libby Birky says she knew the Panera concept was in the works but that no one at Panera, including Shaich, ever contacted SAME directly. But Cerreta, whose One World Everybody Eats organization helps interested parties establish their own community kitchens, spoke to the company on behalf of SAME and a number of other affiliated community kitchens, she notes.

"Over the course of the last three to six months, we have had kind of a loose attachment to it," Birky says. "We're just totally excited about the whole thing. We're just ecstatic to hear that a huge company like Panera, one of the largest chains, is taking the idea and running with it. It's kind of giving us more credibility that someone else is working on building a community in a place that really needs it."

Is the fact that, as the New York Times reports, the Missouri store is in an affluent suburb a problem for Birky?

Not at all, she insists. "We chose our location based on a population of mixed people. We wanted a community that had access to everybody ... I think it's really essential." Still, notes Birky, "a community kitchen can exist and be functional just about anywhere."

"Kitchens like this aren't necessarily for indigent people," she concludes. "They're really just for people who need a little bit of help. You never know who's hurting."

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