October 5, 2010; Source: St. Louis Today.com | In case you are wondering, even though patrons pay whatever they like for a meal at St. Louis Bread Co.’s nonprofit cafe, they are expected to pay something. As Terri Barr, one of the greeters at the cafe, located outside St. Louis, is quick to point out, “It’s not free. If everybody pays below the (suggested) price, then we can’t help people in need.”

In operation since May, the restaurant is meant to offer low-cost meals for those who can’t afford the full price, with better off diners expected to pay closer to, if not, the full suggested retail price. There are some people, however, who have no money, so they’re asked to volunteer in the restaurant for an hour in exchange for a voucher for a free meal.

Any money the restaurant clears, after deducting operating costs, will ultimately be donated to support social service projects. Other than a few exceptions—such as the time teens charged $3 on their credit card for $40 worth of food—most customers have been paying about 85 percent of the actual retail price for food.

The cafe, which is run by the charitable foundation of Panera Bread Co., is coming close to breaking even, according to Ron Shaich, company chairman. He’s hopeful that in the next few months the cafe will be taking in enough money to able to make donations to the community.

The company already supports programs to address hunger through donations—which St. Louis Today.com says totals in the millions—directly from its charitable arm. So, Shaich adds, the purpose of the nonprofit cafe is more about “trying to set an example that corporate responsibility is not just about cutting a check.”—Bruce Trachtenberg