One fairly local bakery and cafe has been demonstrating that it can and does work since 2010! Panera Cares Community cafes -- one in Missouri, one in Michigan and another just south in Portland, OR cater to hungry patrons and only charge what they can pay based losely on a suggested donation. Many skeptics who think that there are too many ways to take advantage of such a system are being proven wrong. Those down on their luck stopping by for a meal may only be able to throw in $1 today, but may toss in a $10 or $20 on their next visit.
Run by the Panera Bread Foundation, the goal of these Non-Profit community cafes are to feed anyone who is hungry in exchange for what they can give back in return. Another option besides paying what one can for the food is to work in the kitchen for one hour in exchange for a hot meal. Several volunteers have made it a habit of returning to work in the cafe on a weekly basis.
Panera Cares cafes exist to make a difference by offering the Panera Bread experience with dignity to all... Those who can afford it, those who need a hand up, and everyone in between. If only all restaurants and service companies were based on these values - perhaps we might all get a hand up when needed and be able to return the favor as things start looking up. The wonderful thing about such a business model is that the acts of giving and sharing really do build a sense of community. Those who have been helped are more likely to give back, creating a sustainable cycle of contributing and receiving.
Though business owners took a gamgle on running their restaurants on this manner, there have been some unexpected benefits. Not charging a set price up front for example has caused customers to evaluate their experience beyond face value. They must reflect and consider the true VALUE of the meal, environment and company beyond just ingredients and food. It has been found in fact, that 20% of customers pay more than the suggested amount which offsets the shortage for those who are unable to pay anything or the full amount. In the end, it all seems to work out.
Link to Panera's homepage: http://www.panerabread.com/