When Pay-What-You-Can Is Problematic

Check out this story from the Portland Tribune about Panera Cafe’s troubles with a nonprofit, pay-what-you-can model: https://www.portlandtribune.com/news/story.php?story_id=131663856972432200

I had two simultaneous responses to this article, which I wished I hadn’t read while eating breakfast: sympathy and revulsion.

I have sympathy for the folks at Panera taking a risk and trying to do something good. I also have sympathy for the people in the stores getting overwhelmed when they encounter the intense needs of people who are homeless and addicted. And of course I have sympathy for any business using a sliding scale and worrying about paying its bills. I feel you, Panera.

But since we both use the phrase, “pay what you can”, I also really hope that people don’t associate you and WCA in their minds, because yuck.

I am going to hazard a guess that if I put on my work clothes and got out my laptop and camped out at Panera all day, drinking coffee and snacking and paying what I could afford for it, nobody would ask me to leave. I bet I could do that every day for a week and nobody would ask me to leave, or tell me I was abusing Panera’s business. That’s because I’m not poor and I’m not disabled. On the other hand, if I were poor and/or disabled, and I got together the stuff I need to manage my life and went down to Panera and hung out all day, drinking coffee and snacking and paying what I could afford, I would not be welcome at all.

Holding out the promise of treating people equally regardless of their resources, and then not doing it, is problematic. If you say it, you need to mean it. It sounds like Panera in Portland is struggling because a lot of people took Panera at its word about what it was offering, and too many of them happened to be poor.

Reading this article made me very happy that some of the people who use WCA the most are the people who are paying the least, and we don’t ever have to say to them, OK, that’s too much, you have to leave now. We are in even less of a position to be a social service agency than Panera is, which is why we are careful about how we present ourselves. We don’t say we can meet everyone’s needs because we can’t. But once you are our patient, we will make your treatment plan work for you regardless of money.  We will make sure you get as much acupuncture as you need. You don’t get more if you pay more. You get as much as you need and you pay what you can and somehow, it really does work out. In part, that is because acupuncture is magical and community acupuncture is even more magical, and all of the patients are contributing simply by showing up and being treated together.

But another key difference is what I was trying to get at in my social business blog below, which is that our pay-what-you-can is not an exercise in philanthropy. It’s not a “noble experiment dear to our hearts”. It’s our livelihood.  The purpose of pay-what-you-can is to create and maintain relationships with lots of different kinds of people. It’s not to serve as feel-good advertising for the successful, corporate side of our business. We need all of our patients who are paying what they can afford. We depend on them. We have a narrow margin of survival, and our fate is in their hands, and pretty much everybody understands that.  If it doesn’t work out, we can’t close up shop and go back to treating celebrities. Our businesses live their lives very close to the bone and very close to our patients.

Somehow that feels a lot saner and more respectful.

Author: lisafer

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  1. What bothers me about this article

    The shoddy reporting that never should have seen the light of day.

    The article focuses on the fact that Panera’s Portland store fails to break even while the Detroit and St Louis stores do. Okay, that’s interesting. But the article never goes into the various reasons why that might be the case and instead focuses on those lest able to pay, the poor and homeless. Plus the local high school population.

    As a result the article takes the word of Panera’s CEO that it is the problem of the Portland store’s “entitled” population that is the problem.  

    That’s total bullshit and it hacks me off that the newspaper lets the CEO get away with it. They’ve lost my business, completely.

  2. .

    That article is astoundingly offensive, wow.  I’m a big fan of leaving comments on the boards on things like that and have written many strongly worded letters in my life, and even I’m at a loss at where to begin.  There’s not even one sentence questioning why people might need to pay what they’re paying.  I hope there are some letters to the editor coming to them in the next bit of time!

  3. Semantics and intangibles

    The pay “what you can” has always been a thorn in my side ever since I started putting things together. It just has this wierd passive-aggressive/manipulative feel to it when you say it with the wrong tone of voice.

    The alternatives are a bit better; pay what you want, what you fucking feel like, etc. The great communicator that I am, I’m still looking for a good way to get the message across but I still haven’t found the right words.

    As for the article, yeah it’s a poorly written fluff piece which comes across more like an advertorial than anything else. Ultimately, whatever momentum that place has to succeed long term will come from the feel of it. When people are uncomfortable with the vibe of the place; if it has a pay what you can (ie: guilt, guilt, pay us more to help us pay for those filthy hobos) vibe then people won’t show up anymore. Maybe the next time they’ll have a better attitude.

    I can’t see a time when people would ever find a crap vibe in WCA, it feels good and confortable. You guys are obviously doing something right. 

  4. What is a committment to something dear to the heart?

    expensive, obviously superior guy: “I feel bad about the inferior people of this world that should be my customers….wait I have an idea……How about if I get my current customers to pay more…. those inferiors can experience being my customers……at least until we have to call the former police.”


     I hope they figure it out.



    It is similar to CA because money is involved. 

  5. invite

    Thank you Lisa. Really interesting. And yeah, yUCK! Where does this guy live. We should invite him to a clinic, along with maybe his “community outreach associate”/corrections deputy. Offer some acu and some reading material.


  6. blech

    So his other 2 spots pull in 80% of retail, which is enough to cover the overhead *and* fund a job training program.  The Portland location only does 60% of retail, which isn’t breaking even.  So he’s got somewhere in the realm of a 30% profit margin from his retail stores, with $3 Billion in sales in 2010, and even the two charity stores are paying their own way.  He’s upset that his one store in Portland isn’t making a profit?

     “The changes appear to be working. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, nearly
    every table at the Hollywood Panera Cares was taken and only a second
    look revealed the few who might have come out of need.”  In other words, this isn’t for people who need it.

    “A woman who said her name was Taylor sat in a booth
    by herself, eating cream of chicken and wild rice soup. She comes in
    regularly and always pays $3 more than the listed price for her lunch.

    …Panera founder Shaich is counting on more Portlanders like Taylor.” In other words, the charity is just there to get folks who want to help to pay even more for their lunch.

    What a fucking asshole.


  7. I very impulsively posted

    I very impulsively posted this video with my comments late on Friday night after my shift and then headed to a Jello Wrestling Training retreat.  It’s fun to come back and read the comments, critiques that have come out of it.