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Do We Have to Subscribe to Restaurants, Too?

Why restaurants — and customers — are signing on for memberships and subscriptions

An illustration featuring a plate of food, a computer, keyboard, mouse, wine bottle, and glass of wine.

I have too many subscriptions. There are the streaming services — Netflix, Hulu, Disney+; there’s Amazon Prime, which allows me to “subscribe and save” yet again, creating several micro-subscriptions within the bigger one; and then there are the little indulgent services I’ve come to rely on — Stitch Fix, Chewy, Instacart+. I subscribe to the Substacks of my colleagues, plus print and digital media of all kinds. I still subscribe to Pandora, even though I know Spotify has more cachet. By my rough count, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some, I have around a dozen active subscriptions.

And now, restaurants near and far are practically begging me to sign up for even more memberships. Some are essentially beefed up loyalty programs promising perks like free delivery and points that can be used toward future purchases; others are monthly meal deliveries that drop chef-prepared dinners right on your doorstep; and others are wine clubs that bundle bottles with tasting notes to turn subscribers into instant connoisseurs. It all has me wondering, who are these subscriptions for?

At this point, I’m extremely hesitant to sign up for any new subscriptions, even from the restaurants I love. And I’m not alone: According to the personal finance app Rocket Money, in 2022 the average US consumer was juggling around 6.7 subscriptions (up from 4.2 in 2019), including streaming and retail, amounting to over $200/month. A study by C+R Research finds that 42 percent of people continue to pay for subscriptions after they stop using them. (Personally, I’m still trying to figure out how to pare down my existing streaming services and get out of the at-home gym subscription I signed up for.)

Many independent restaurants first introduced subscription models during the pandemic, and diners signed up to support small businesses and develop an ongoing relationship with the restaurant itself. In 2020, when the owners of Sonny’s Pizza in DC found themselves navigating their big pivot, Zoom wine tastings with staff provided the inspiration for a socially distant revenue stream. In October of that year, Sonny’s launched a natural wine club in partnership with their distributor, Plant Wines. Soon after, they joined Table22, a platform that launched in 2020 to help restaurants manage subscriptions, to streamline the backend once the club grew beyond the capabilities of their Excel spreadsheet.

Almost three years later, Sonny’s social media manager and event coordinator Alanna Reeves says the wine club has over 100 members, and has grown to include in-person wine tastings. Non-members can drop in for $10, which Reeves says has helped grow the club even more.

“It’s a great source of revenue for us but also ensures a consistent community — a core community of people,” Reeves says. “Our wine club members are coming back every month for wine, but if we’re providing them that really great experience, they’re not just coming in once a month. We also have a bar and cafe attached to our restaurant, so they’re seeing that we’re this day-to-night community space, and they can come and bring their friends and trust that there’s going to be really great food and wine at all times.”

Sam Bernstein, founder of Table22, says the platform now has 500 restaurant partners and tens of thousands of members. Its subscription packages are tailored to the strengths of each restaurant and include butcher boxes loaded with pastured chicken and dry-aged beef from Lady Jaye in Seattle; a dumpling of the month club from Portland, Oregon’s Kachka; and Chef Greg’s Family Supper Club from Leah & Louise in Charlotte, North Carolina, which offers a multi-course meal for two for $70 per month. Table22’s subscribers, Bernstein says, run the gamut in terms of demographics — from families with young children looking for a way to enjoy their favorite restaurants without schlepping their kids along to retirees who want to incorporate restaurant-quality provisions in their home cooking.

Whereas a non-subscriber guest, even a relatively loyal one, may visit a restaurant two or three times a year, ongoing subscriptions add seven or eight purchases per year to that equation, Bernstein says, multiplying the amount of revenue the restaurant can make from that guest. But Bernstein adds, it’s also contributing to more connected on-premise experiences as well: “We’ve seen more of our restaurants now wanting to create some integration.” That could mean waived fees for wine tastings, discounts for members, early access to reservations, and other perks. “Things that are meant to not just generate revenue but to reward the loyalty and create a kind of draw.”

In recent months, big restaurant chains like Panera, Pret a Manger, and Sweetgreen have also been getting in on the trend: Panera’s Unlimited Sip Club (for $11.99/month) gets members unlimited free drinks, and Sweetgreen’s $10/month subscription gets customers $3 off every Sweetgreen order, essentially “paying off” as long as someone eats Sweetgreen at least once a week. Subscribing to a chain restaurant is a way to, theoretically at least, support one’s daily consumption habits with financial savings and exclusive access.

The brands love them, though, because they know people tend to spend more when they’re redeeming their “rewards.” Brands are betting the subscriptions will mean more revenue for them because you’ll be picking up a croissant to go with that free coffee. And it’s no wonder that restaurants want in on the $1.5 trillion subscription market, as financial services company UBS predicts the market will be by 2025.

Subscriptions are also an important way for brands to learn more about their customers. For marketing pros, data is king, and one way to collect it is through customers opting in. For $6.99 per month, P.F. Chang’s Platinum Rewards Program allows its members to jump to the head of the reservation line, accrue double the points on purchases compared to their unpaid Gold membership, and to participate in “insider panels…[to] help shape the future of P.F. Chang’s.”

“We thought about how we could connect with the consumer and meet them where they want to meet us,” explains P.F. Chang’s senior vice president of marketing, Genaro Perez. P.F. Chang’s Platinum Rewards program launched in October of 2022, and though Perez declined to share specific numbers, he says the program has been successful so far, especially in terms of the data P.F. Chang’s is able to gather about these VIP guests. “What we know is that the platinum subscribers come see us way more often and their check average is higher. These are a unique set of guests that we want to learn about and, as we get more data about their behaviors, see how we can meet their needs.”

These so-called VIP customers come up often in discussions about restaurant subscriptions, whether it’s fast casual or fine dining. Subscriptions cultivate a class of super fans, and both chain and independent restaurants clearly see the value in strengthening relationships with this group of consumers.

Smaller restaurants say that the real value of a membership is in this closer relationship, which often amounts to a combination of access and curation. You can pick up a bottle of natural wine from any number of shops in DC, but if you want the hottest picks from Sonny’s, you have to be in the club. Sonny’s wine club is for locals only, but other Table22 subscriptions, like Che Fico in San Francisco and Huertas in New York, ship provisions nationwide, helping them grow brand recognition beyond driving distance of their restaurants and potentially setting them up to launch CPG products on a larger scale.

L’Ardente, a luxe Italian spot in downtown DC, began selling meal subscriptions not as a pandemic response (they opened in the fall of 2021), but as a way to tap into a wider audience. Rina Rapuano, L’Ardente’s director of marketing and PR notes that the restaurant, which was named Eater DC’s restaurant of the year in 2022, is consistently booked. Their Chef’s Dinner Club, which provides subscribers with take-out and reheat meals, creates “another dining room” for L’Ardente, one that’s in their guest’s own homes.

Currently, that dining room includes about 40 subscribers — a small number with a potentially big impact, as some guests append their meals, which start at $135 for two, with wine and other add-ons, like L’Ardente’s famed 40-layer lasagna, that drive up their spend considerably. Still, Rapuano says, the team must constantly evaluate whether the effort is worth the return. In the early months of the program, Rapuano says, L’Ardente’s kitchen was working overtime to “surprise and delight guests” with new menu items, creating a workload that felt unsustainable. They soon learned how to reconfigure existing menu items to create dishes for members — like a popular spinach and goat cheese ravioli whose filling was reimagined as a baked goat cheese and herb dip with Seylou Bakery levain.

Ultimately, Rapuano says restaurant memberships are another pandemic-born convenience, like QR code menus and curbside pick-up, that’s here to stay. “The pandemic changed the way we think about everything. Restaurants had to adapt and offer things to people where they were, literally and figuratively,” says Rapuano. “It’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle. People want that flexibility. The subscription is a way to curate the things in your life that you enjoy. I think it’s something we’re going to see a lot more of going forward.” That may be bad news for my goal of paring down my monthly memberships, but it’s great news for my desire to stay educated, connected, and well-fed from the comfort of my own home.

Stephanie Ganz is a writer and recipe developer whose byline appears in BUST, Bon Appétit, The Kitchn, and The Nosher. She lives in Richmond, VA with her cute little family.
Heedayah is an illustrator and designer who loves to capture playful vibes in bright-colorful work. She enjoys illustrating food, female figures and still life.