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Can a Restaurant Membership Club Save Latin America’s Restaurants?

Separated by thousands of miles, restaurants in nine Latin American countries have formed a dining club to raise funds from globetrotting customers

A chef and kitchen workers stand in a darkened dining room
Chef Sergio Barroso and team at Restaurante 040 in Santiago
Restaurante 040

When life returns to a state resembling normal and everyone is released from COVID-related self-imprisonment, you may want to celebrate with a meal out. But with restaurants shutting their doors around the globe, in many cases permanently, the dining landscape could look significantly different when everyone emerges from home. Some restaurants have reached out to customers for financial support through delivery, gift cards, and fundraisers, but a group of restaurants in Latin America has a new approach: They’re hoping you’ll be willing to fork over around $20 a month starting now in order to secure yourself a reservation at a chef’s table or a fancy dinner on New Year’s Eve somewhere down the line. (You won’t even have to awkwardly slip a Jackson to the maitre d’.) And that promise of future access could help guarantee the longevity of not one but more than 100 of the most acclaimed restaurants across nine countries.

Pre-paid access to tables, in the form of a membership collective, might be enough to keep businesses afloat in the midst of COVID-19. The newly announced Stellar Collective includes a number of higher-end restaurants in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay. Many are names commonly found on the Latin America 50 Best list, like Restaurante 040 in Santiago, El Baqueano in Buenos Aires, Maito in Panama City, Isolina in Lima, and Leo in Bogotá, while others are somewhat more accessible, like A Casa do Porco in São Paulo or Nicos in Mexico City. (The full list of participating restaurants is available on the collective’s website.)

The Stellar Collective is a sort of international dining club, with monthly fees starting now for big perks in the future. Unlike gift cards that merely delay the financial pain, membership sales inject cash into the restaurant industry at no cost later. And unlike fundraisers that rely on charity (in limited supply these days), the collective offers today’s cash-strapped consumer at least something in return.

For $20 per month ($15 monthly if customers sign up for an annual membership), diners gain access to early reservations on holidays like Valentine’s Day, take preference when reserving chefs’ private tables, get notifications about last-minute openings from cancelations, and receive concierge services across the network. “These benefits are not unheard of,” says Luis Caviglia, who co-founded the collective with his brother Juan. “There’s just no systematic, one-stop access to this kind of hospitality.” Despite a number of exclusive restaurants on the list, membership is designed to be affordable to a broad customer base — more broad, at least, than the usual clientele of wealthy locals and international trophy diners.

Over the past month, the Caviglias, originally from Uruguay, talked with their Latin American clients at restaurant software company Meitre about ways to survive the COVID-19 crisis, a particular challenge for fine dining restaurants whose tasting menus don’t translate to delivery. While there are plans to introduce a premium membership option in the future, the collective aims to capitalize on the public’s immediate urge to help mitigate economic damage. “Probably in two months time, the membership is going to sell better than today, but we need to do something now,” Luis says. That means making membership broadly accessible, even if that means sacrificing the exclusivity that, for many high-end regulars, is part of a restaurant’s allure.

The brothers are completely handing off the collective to the chefs, who can add new members, coordinate membership benefits, and manage profits across the network. As of yet, there are no specific rules about how restaurants must use the funds, so no money is guaranteed to go toward employees rather than owners’ pockets. Juan says they considered implementing spending requirements but ultimately decided against it given the urgency of the situation and the broad spectrum of economic factors restaurants face. He compares it to an emergency oxygen mask on an airplane. “First put the mask on yourself. Then help others,” he says. If a restaurant goes under, it takes workers with it. Some member restaurateurs have pledged to pass along support to vulnerable workers and suppliers, but these promises are informal for now.

Big names and extensive geographic coverage give the collective broad appeal, but it’s not always easy to coordinate efforts across different countries, cultures, and economies. But Luis argues variety could also be a good thing. “If I’m a diner and I’m offered a membership for one restaurant, that’s not enough,” he says, “but the network effect here is huge for the people who love gastronomy. Diversity might make things more complex … but at the end of the day, it’s one of our biggest strengths.”

The collective has grown organically and quickly, as chefs invite peers and friends to participate, and there’s no reason the idea couldn’t take root elsewhere. As restaurant owners everywhere struggle to stay afloat financially, they may want to look to Latin America for inspiration.

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