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    Pay-Per-Chew: More restaurants trying subscription programmes

    Dee-Ann Durbin

    AP – 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 favourite meals.

    Large chains like Panera and PF Chang’s as well as neighbourhood 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 favourite appetiser 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 chef Matt Baker at Gravitas, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Washington.

    For USD130 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 re-opened. The Supper Club – which serves about 60 diners per month – keeps that revenue flowing.

    Chef and owner of Gravitas Matt Baker poses for a portrait inside the restaurant in Washington in the United States. PHOTO: AP

    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 USD6.99 per month, members get free delivery, among other perks.

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

    El Lopo, a San Francisco eatery, has 26 members in its Take-Care-Of-Me Club. They pay either USD89 per month for USD100 in dining credits or USD175 per month for USD200 in credits. When members come in, El Lopo starts bringing out their favourite dishes. Each visit, they can gift a free drink to anyone in the eatery.

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

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

    Executive director Rick Camac of Industry Relations at the Institute of Culinary Education, said he expects many more restaurants to offer subscriptions in the coming years.

    Consumers are accustomed to them, he said, and the regular monthly income helps restaurants manage their cash flow.

    But not all subscription programmes have had success. In 2021, On the Border Mexican Grill introduced its Queso Club, which offered free cheese dip for a year for USD1.

    The programme stopped taking new subscribers a year later.

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