This month, Saint Louis Bread Company celebrates the first anniversary of re-opening its downtown Clayton café as the Cares Café, a nonprofit where customers pay what they can afford for their meals. We caught up with Don Hutcheson, Panera’s St. Louis area director, to see how the café has fared in its first year and what’s in store for the future.

LN: What has the café brought to the community?

DH: It provides a way for those who want to do something extra but don’t have the time to volunteer. They can help out someone who may be standing in line behind them. It’s a really unique way to let folks ‘volunteer’ financially. And those people who are helped get to come in and eat real food on real china and sit down and have a meal with dignity.

LN: What’s been the community’s response?

DH:  People have been coming in and volunteering their time, especially the younger generation. It’s been a real eye-opener, that people are volunteering for long periods. The local customer base has been really loyal and appreciative of what we’re doing.

LN: What are some of the successes of the past year?

DH: There’s been a lot that has worked really well. When we first opened the café, the main thing we wanted to be was a self-sustaining community café, and we’ve been able to do that. Over the past year, we’ve fed approximately 200,000 customers.  We wanted to partner with an organization to use our specialties to help people, so we’ve implemented a program with Covenant House Missouri, and we’ve done training with some of their at-risk youth to further some of their work skills and life skills. They go through 12 weeks with us; we had our first graduation May 4. Those grads will be placed in cafés throughout St. Louis.

LN: How many other Bread Company cafés like this are there now?

DH: We’ve opened up a location in Dearborn, Mich., and a third location in Portland, Ore. We feel we can open up another one or two soon. Right now we’re in the process of analyzing which locations would work out best. It has to be a place like Clayton that has a good customer mix, where people really pick up on the shared responsibility aspect and help keep the café open. That’s the great thing about the Clayton location.

LN: Some local businesses were leery of the café when it first opened, thinking the ‘pay what you want’ concept might undercut them. Has this perception changed?

DH: There was a big misconception at first that it was a free café, and it never was meant to be free, it’s a café with shared responsibility by the community. I think once everyone figured that out, the criticism died down.

LN: What’s in the future for the Clayton café?

DH: We’re going to continue our training program with Covenant House. We should have another group starting up right after the first group graduates, and we hope each class gets bigger. I see the program growing quite a bit.  LN