Restaurants increasingly offering subscriptions to help boost revenue

Restaurant chains like Panera and P.F. Chang’s are betting that diners will pay monthly or yearly fees to get a break on the price of meals or even unlimited drinks.

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Matt Baker, chef and owner of Gravitas, a restaurant in Washington that has a subscription service offering a monthly meal for two.

Matt Baker, chef and owner of Gravitas, a restaurant in Washington that has a subscription service offering a monthly meal for two.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Consumers are willing to pay monthly subscription fees for streaming services, pet food and even toilet paper. Now, some restaurants and restaurant chains are betting they’ll do the same for their favorite meals and even unlimited drinks.

Chains like Panera and P.F. Chang’s as well as neighborhood hangouts are experimenting with the subscription model to ensure steady revenue and customer visits.

Some offer unlimited drinks or free delivery for a monthly fee. Others will bring out your favorite appetizer each time you visit.

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 and joy and love for our offerings,” said Matt Baker, the chef at Gravitas, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Washington.

For $130 a month, Gravitas Supper Club subscribers get a three-course takeout meal for two. Baker said Gravitas shifted to takeout during the pandemic but saw demand fizzle once its dining room reopened. The Supper Club — which serves about 60 diners a month — keeps that revenue flowing.

The upscale Chinese chain P.F. Chang’s also saw an opportunity to increase to-go orders with its subscription plan, which was launched in September. For $6.99 a month, members get perks including free delivery.

Other restaurants are experimenting with memberships, which let diners pre-pay toward their meals.

El Lopo, a San Francisco bar, has 26 members in its Take-Care-Of-Me Club. They either pay $89 a month for $100 in dining credits or $175 a month for $200 in credits. When members come in, El Lopo starts bringing out their favorite dishes. Each visit, they also can give a free drink to anyone in the bar.

El Lopo owner Daniel Azarkman started the club in March 2021 to encourage patrons to return as the pandemic eased. Now, he said he’s hearing from restaurants all over the country interested in starting similar programs.

“What it really achieves is getting them in more often,” he said.

Rick Camac, executive director of industry relations for the Institute of Culinary Education, said he expects more restaurants to begin offering subscriptions because the regular monthly income helps manage their cash flow.

Not all subscription programs have had success, though. In 2021, On the Border Mexican Grill introduced its Queso Club, offering free cheese dip for a year for $1. A year later, the program stopped taking new subscribers.

Edithann Ramey, On the Border’s chief marketing officer, said more than 150,000 people signed up, and members visited seven times more often than the average guest. But the Dallas-based chain wasn’t making enough to cover the cost of the dip.

On the Border is retooling the program. When it’s reintroduced later this year, the chain might charge more or move to a monthly model, Ramey said.

Taco Bell is 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 generated buzz, but the chain is trying to find ways to make it more valuable to customers, said Dane Matthews, Taco Bell’s chief digital officer, who said a subscription could promise faster service, for example, or unlock special menu items.

Panera, which is based in St. Louis, had nearly 40 million members in its loyalty program in early 2020, but it wanted to get them to come in more often. So it launched a subscription program offering unlimited coffee and tea for $8.99 a month. Customers started coming in several times a week, and about one-third of the time they bought food.

Last year, Panera expanded the subscription. Now, members pay $11.99 a month or $119.99 a year for unlimited hot and cold drinks. Yearly subscribers also get free delivery.

Eduardo Luz, Panera’s chief brand officer, won’t provide exact numbers but he said members now make up 25% of the chain’s transactions.

“It’s a huge traffic driver,” Luz said.

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