NEW YORK (

TheStreet

) --

Panera Bread

(PNRA)

Chairman and former CEO Ron Shaich reveals to

TheStreet

how Panera Cares, its "café of shared responsibility," not only respects the dignity of those less fortunate but helps build brand equity and form deeper community relationships.

Inspired by a segment of "Making a Difference" on

NBC Nightly News

, in May 2010 Shaich launched Panera Cares, a pay-as-you-can café. The menu offerings are the same as in a traditional Panera Bread restaurant, of which there are nearly 1,500 in the U.S., but there is no cash register -- just a cash donation box, where customers are encouraged to pay what they are able to pay for the food they eat.

Shaich says "it's not a business model," but 20% of guests who come in to Panera Cares pay more than the suggested donation, 60% leave the suggested donation, and 20% leave less or nothing.

"It's a model to help the community," Shaich says, "and the reason it's working is that people get it, people are fundamentally good, they're not being gamed, there's no other agenda -- it's completely transparent."

There are currently three Panera Cares locations: Portland, Ore., Clayton, Mo. and Dearborn, Mich.

-- Written by Miriam Marcus Reimer in New York

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