Not everyone is so generous, but that's OK with Brooke Porter, who manages the restaurant. She knows that times are still hard for many. She has seen families down on their luck come in to celebrate birthdays with a meal they normally couldn't afford. A teacher laid off after 25 years stops by on his way to job fairs. He can't afford to pay much but makes up for it by volunteering at the store.
"If a man in a suit and tie leaves a dollar for a $10 meal, that's fine," Porter said. "We don't know his story."
Only a few take advantage of the system - "lunch on Uncle Ron" as Shaich calls it. He still fumes over watching three college kids pay $3 for $40 worth of food. Generally, peer pressure prevents that sort of behavior, he said.
"It's like parking in a handicapped spot," Shaich said.
Overall, the cafe performs at about 80 percent of retail and brings in revenue of about $100,000 a month. That's enough to generate $3,000 to $4,000 a month above costs, money being used for a job training program for at-risk youths.
"We took some kids that typically wouldn't be employable, didn't know how to work in society," Shaich said. "We gave them a combination of job training and life skills." The first three graduates of the program are starting jobs at other Panera restaurants.
Shaich admitted he didn't know how the pay-what-you-want experiment would pan out. He said the success should send a message to other businesses to put faith in humanity.
"The lesson here is most people are fundamentally good," Shaich said. "People step up and they do the right thing."