Panera You’ve heard the term “corporate responsibility” before, right? The notion that companies have an obligation to serve the greater good while trying to boost the bottom line?

There are lots of great examples floating around out there. Wal-Mart is renowned for its disaster relief and “green” initiatives. Starbucks offers health care benefits and stock options to part-time workers. Disney keeps a sharp eye on the environment, charitable giving and volunteerism. It trickles all the way down to the local level at places like HEB, a San Antonio-based supermarket chain that delivers Thanksgiving meals to the poor in nearly every community that the grocer serves.

And sure, you can argue — rightfully so — that successful companies have an obligation to share the wealth, to give something back to the communities they serve.

Even so, I think St. Louis Bread Co. has just raised the bar.

Those of you who live outside of St. Louis know the company better as Panera Bread, but don’t be fooled — they’re one and the same, and they’ve just launched a corporate responsibility initiative that’s turning heads for its creativity and innovation.

The company has named one of its stores in Clayton, Mo., as its first “St. Louis Bread Co. Cares” cafe. Kavita Kumar, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, explains how the program works:

The downtown Clayton store’s menu items are the same as at other Panera outlets. But instead of prices, there are “suggested funding levels” on its menu board. After placing their orders, customers are handed a receipt with a suggested price — which doesn’t include any sales tax — and they’re told to pay what they think is appropriate (although they) are encouraged to pay more. … The proceeds will pay for the store’s operations, and remaining money will go to community groups that have not yet been disclosed.

“A store employee said the Clayton store is the first one using this non-profit model in the chain nationwide,” Kumar writes, “but Panera hopes to unroll a similar store in other cities in the future.”

Basically, Panera is counting on the generosity of its customers to drive its corporate responsibility efforts.

Will it work? Time will tell, but if the experiment is successful, the sky’s the limit. Panera, after all, has 1,388 locations nationwide.

In the meantime, the next time I feel like going out for lunch, I might just head out toward Clayton.

What about you? Would you pay more than your lunch is worth if you knew the money would go to a good cause? How is your company being socially responsible?

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