Consumers are willing to pay monthly subscription fees for streaming services, pet food, and even toilet paper. And now some restaurants are betting they’ll do the same for their favorite dishes.
Big chains like Panera and PF Chang’s, as well as neighborhood hangouts, are increasingly experimenting with the subscription model as a way to ensure steady income and customer visits. Some offer unlimited drinks or free delivery for a monthly fee; others will bring out your favorite appetizer every time you visit.
They’re following a trend: The average American juggled 6.7 subscriptions in 2022, up from 4.2 in 2019, according to Rocket Money, a personal finance app.
“This is just another way for customers to provide a level of support, joy and love for our offerings,” said Matt Baker, chef at Gravitas, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Washington.
For $130 a month, Gravitas Supper Club subscribers get a three-course take-out meal for two. Baker said Gravitas transitioned to takeout during the pandemic but saw demand drop once the dining room reopened. The Supper Club, which serves about 60 diners a month, keeps the revenue flowing.
Upscale Chinese chain PF Chang’s has also seized the opportunity to boost take-out orders with its subscription plan, which launched in September. For $6.99 a month, members get free delivery, among other perks.
Other restaurants are experimenting with season tickets, which allow diners to prepay for their visits.
El Lopo, a San Francisco bar, has 26 members in its Take-Care-Of-Me Club. They pay $89 a month for $100 in dining credits or $175 a month for $200 in credits. As the members walk in, El Lopo starts bringing out their favorite dishes. On each visit, they can give away a free drink to anyone at the bar.
El Lopo owner Daniel Azarkman started the club in March 2021 to encourage patrons to return as the pandemic eases. He is now hearing from restaurants across the country that they are interested in starting similar programs.
“What it really achieves is getting them in more often,” she said.
Rick Camac, executive director of industry relations at the Institute of Culinary Education, said he expects many more restaurants to offer memberships in the next few years. Consumers are used to them, he said, and the regular monthly income helps restaurants manage cash flow.
But not all subscription programs have been successful. In 2021, On the Border Mexican Grill introduced its Queso Club, which offered a year’s free cheese dip for $1. The program stopped accepting new subscribers a year later.
Edithann Ramey, chief marketing officer at On the Border, said more than 150,000 people have signed up for the Queso Club, and members have visited seven times more often than the average guest. But the Dallas-based chain wasn’t making enough money to cover the cost of the decline.
On the Border is now retooling the program and plans to reintroduce it later this year. It could charge more or switch to a monthly model, Ramey said, but the subscription element will remain.
“It’s becoming kind of a hot trend and we want to stay as a leading brand,” Ramey said.
Taco Bell is also tinkering with its $10 Taco Lover’s Pass, which lets subscribers get a taco every day for a month. The pass was introduced in January 2022 and again in October; It’s generated buzz, but the chain is trying to think of ways to make it more valuable to consumers, said Dane Matthews, Taco Bell’s chief digital officer. A subscription might promise faster service, for example, or unlock unique menu items.
Other restaurants have dropped subscriptions, saying their hands are full just running the kitchen.
In late 2020, SheWolf, an upscale Italian restaurant in Detroit, began sending subscribers a box of pasta, sauces, and other goodies for $80 a month. But when his dining room fully reopened six months later, it was too much work to fit hundreds of boxes together.
However, SheWolf keeps one foot in the subscription space. Dan Reinisch, the restaurant’s beverage director, ships Italian wines to about 80 subscribers who pay $60 or more each month.
Other companies have had better luck. St. Louis-based Panera had nearly 40 million members in its loyalty program as of early 2020, but it wanted to get them to join more often. So he launched a membership program that offered unlimited coffee and tea for $8.99 a month. Customers began arriving several times a week and about a third of the time they were purchasing food.
Last year, Panera expanded the subscription. Now, members can pay $11.99 a month or $119.99 a year for unlimited hot and cold drinks. Annual subscribers also get free delivery.
Eduardo Luz, Panera’s chief brand officer, won’t share exact numbers, but said members now account for 25% of the chain’s transactions.
“It’s a huge traffic driver,” Luz said.
The idea quickly spread abroad. Pret A Manger, a sandwich chain owned by the same private company as Panera, launched its own coffee subscription in the UK in 2020. As of November, it was being used 1.2 million times a week. Pret also offers subscriptions in France and the United States
Chris Hosford, a communications consultant in Southern California, joined Panera’s subscription plan a year ago. He passes four or five Paneras on his regular routes and often stops in for a coffee and a snack.
“That’s not a huge amount of savings for me — probably $5-10 a month on average,” Hosford said. “But that’s fine with me.”