Restaurant and Chill? Subscriptions Are Expanding

It's not just Netflix anymore
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 21, 2023 1:51 PM CST
New Restaurant Trend: Subscribe and Dine
Matt Baker, chef and owner of Gravitas, poses for a portrait inside the restaurant, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, in Washington. Gravitas has a subscription service offering a monthly meal for two.   (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Consumers are willing to pay monthly subscription fees for streaming services, pet food, and even toilet paper. And as the AP reports, now some restaurants are betting they'll do the same for their favorite meals. Large 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 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. 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 and joy and love for our offerings," said Matt Baker, the chef at Gravitas, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Washington, DC. For $130 per 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 keeps that revenue flowing. The upscale Chinese chain PF Chang’s also saw an opportunity to increase to-go orders with its subscription plan, which launched in September. For $6.99 per month, members get free delivery, among other perks. Other restaurants are experimenting with memberships, which let diners pre-pay toward their visits.

But not all subscription programs have had success. In 2021, On the Border Mexican Grill introduced its Queso Club, which offered free cheese dip for a year for $1. The program stopped taking new subscribers a year later. Edithann Ramey, On the Border’s chief marketing officer, said more than 150,000 people signed up for the Queso Club, and members visited seven times more often than the average guest. But the chain wasn’t making enough to cover the cost of the dip. On the Border is now retooling and expects to reintroduce the program later this year. It may charge more or move to a monthly model, Ramey said, but the subscription element will remain.

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Other businesses have had better luck. Panera had 40 million members in its loyalty program in early 2020, but wanted to convince them to drop in more often. So it launched a subscription program with unlimited coffee and tea for $8.99 per 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 can pay $11.99 per month or $119.99 per year for unlimited hot and cold drinks. Eduardo Luz, Panera’s chief brand officer, says members now make up 25% of the chain’s transactions. "It’s a huge traffic driver," Luz says.

(More restaurant industry stories.)

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