Who would have thought a free lunch would have been a tricky sell? Panera Bread last week said it had withdrawn its latest pay-what-you-can meal program while it determines how to sustain the interest of both donors and diners in need.
Its pay-what-you-like turkey chili came off the menu in the 48 St. Louis locations where the chain was testing the program, which let customers pay more or less than the $5.89 price for the meal.
"We're excited about what we learned, and we hope to bring it back in the future," Kate Antonacci, the director of societal impact initiatives for Panera, told CNBC.
Over the three months of the test, Panera served 15,000 of the high-fiber, high-protein chilis at an average of 75 percent of the full price, Antonacci said. It was the third phase of the testing, which the company also tried on a smaller scale in Dallas earlier this year .
One major lesson with this round was that Panera served a lot of chili and received a lot of donations during the first few weeks of the program, but after the initial wave of publicity, all the enthusiasm and activity evaporated.
"Hopefully we'll bring it back in early 2014—we're not totally sure yet," Antonacci said. The next phase probably will involve four-to-six week campaigns that will encourage both donors and diners to talk about hunger and order the meal.
The turkey chili, served in a bread bowl with an apple on the side, was a new Panera product developed specifically for this program, called the Meal of Shared Responsibility. It was designed to be especially filling for someone eating just one meal a day.
"It's a lot of food, that was the point," Antonacci said.
The Missouri-based chain, which has 1,700 cafés in 44 states, also operates five completely pay-what-you-can Panera Cares nonprofit cafés as a way to feed those in need, as well as to increase community awareness about poverty and hunger.
The Panera Cares locations—in Chicago; Boston; Portland, Ore.; Dearborn, Mich.; and Clayton, Mo.—will continue to operate unchanged.