Subscription Services Bring Revenue to Struggling Venues

BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse is offering a new subscription membership program that features its handcrafted and award-winning beers. The program is available across California, featuring limited-edition beers (which are only available to members), exclusive upgrades, dining perks and more. (Photo: Courtesy of BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse)

The Four Horsemen – a Michelin-starred culinary and cultural institution in Brooklyn, N.Y. – is just one of many restaurants across the country that are benefiting from subscription services.

Amanda Spina, general manager of The Four Horsemen restaurant and wine bar, said, “It’s been a huge help, especially during winter.”

For Spina and her team at The Four Horsemen, subscription services have helped the business stay connected to the local community, in addition to providing a new revenue stream during the COVID-19 pandemic and tough winter months.

Spina shared that while the restaurant always wanted to curate subscriptions or something similar, it was Table 22 and loosened liquor laws that helped the business make the leap. “With the laws changed [in New York], you can sell bottles to go,” she explained.

The Four Horsemen selected Table 22 as its subscription partner – a platform that’s focused on helping restaurants survive and thrive through a new model of customer patronage. At the moment, Table 22 has more than 40 restaurants around the United States who are building predictable revenue and discovering a new way to grow their brand and create more customers and fans. Some of the innovative and award-winning restaurants featured at Table 22, in addition to The Four Horsemen, include L’Oca d’Oro in Austin, Lost Lake in Chicago and Che Fico in San Francisco.

For fans or new customers of The Four Horsemen, three beverage-themed subscription models are available – a wine package that starts at $40 a month, a cocktail club that starts at $45, and a coffee club for as little as $20. Each of the subscriptions – curated by the Brooklyn restaurant – are monthly and come with special selections. While the wine and cocktail subscriptions are only available for local pick-up in Brooklyn, the coffee subscription is available to customers nationwide.

According to Spina, The Four Horsemen subscription packages have been a huge success and sales have been great. In fact, they’ve had to cap the number of subscriptions in order to maintain quality.

The Future of Restaurant Subscriptions

A September 2020 survey by PropertyNest noted that 55 percent of New Yorkers are interested in restaurant subscriptions, and some experts believe it’s not just a pandemic fad.

“Restaurant subscription services, whether meal kits, cocktail kits or themed monthly dinners, are here to stay,” said Shawn Soole, an industry expert and consultant with Soole Hospitality Concepts in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. “The pandemic has fast-forwarded to the adoption and adaption of consumer convenience in the restaurant world. Takeout, delivery, online demonstrations – everything that has kept many restaurants afloat during these trying times – can and should be adapted to continue, possibly not as in-depth, but the massive change in consumer behavior will be the tone-setting that many restaurants will have to follow going forward.”

For BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, a new subscription membership program is ideal for celebrating 25-years of handcrafting award-winning beers. The brand – which has 210 casual dining restaurants in 29 states – recently rolled out a new subscription membership program across California, featuring limited-edition beers (which are only available to members), exclusive upgrades, dining perks and more.

For $30 per two-month period (a $75 value), BJ’s Brewhouse Beer Club members will receive the BJ’s Brewhouse Beer Club beer release for that two-month period, and access to BJ’s Brewhouse Beer Club perks, including $5 growler refills (one per visit) and other dine-in and take-out perks.

Kevin Mayer, chief marketing officer for BJ’s Restaurants Inc., said, “Our brewers are making unique, small-batch beers that only our members will be able to enjoy. Plus, in addition to the VIP brews, Beer Club members will receive a myriad of perks both for take-out and dine-in.”

Holly Aker, owner of Broken Arrow Restaurant in Portland, Maine, created a subscription service as a side hustle that she runs out her restaurant. It’s called Local Goods Gathered and the subscription features monthly collections of Maine Artisan Cheese with rotating accompaniments.

“We began offering this subscription in June of 2020 as a way of supporting our cheesemaker/supplier community, who had excess product from the loss of sales due to restaurant and small retail closures,” said Aker. “We listed the subscription on a new website and operate shipping and pick up out of the restaurant. This has been successful for us, and we love the opportunity to share and promote our suppliers.”

Aker said she currently has around 60 subscribers and, while she has some reservations about the future of subscriptions, she still hopes to continue the momentum as the pandemic lifts.

“As far as full meal kit, prep or dinner subscriptions, I believe few businesses/restaurants will be able to continue this model,” she said. “The capacity to produce these products will be severely impacted as restrictions lift and we start seeing more diners each day. Hiring is very difficult right now industry-wide and trying to meet demands for in-person dining and the subscription might be difficult. Every restaurant in Portland, Maine right now is hiring front and back-of-the-house staff and there is limited talent available.”

For restaurants considering subscription services, there are several partner options and platforms available, such as Table 22, Goldbelly and Club Feast, among others, which can assist.

“With the onset of COVID-19, food delivery has become a core part of people’s daily lives,” explained Atallah Atallah, co-founder and CEO of Club Feast. “The industry has more than doubled and average order sizes have increased by 24 percent.”

Atallah noted that Club Feast consulted with industry experts to build a restaurant-friendly platform and that would increase its partners’ revenue without eating into their core business. “We believe Club Feast is truly a win-win for everyone, and we’re excited to bring our service to more people and restaurants everywhere.”

Tips for Restaurant Subscription Success

Markus Albert, managing director at Sydney, Australia-based Eat First, a corporate foodservice company that offers a platform for regular or ongoing food delivery, said that to run a successful subscription service, a restaurant needs to make sure its space is designed with delivery in mind.

“Make sure you have separate dedicated order-packing and waiting areas,” Albert said. “You will also need to structure your kitchen so that part of it handles dine-in customers and the other part focuses exclusively on take-out [or subscriptions]. Don't forget to optimize your menu and packaging for delivery. Certain foods travel better than others and some containers are ill-suited for delivery and specific dishes. Consider developing separate take-out and dine-in menus. If you look at restaurants that have weathered the pandemic well, they have all, without fail, implemented these recommendations.”

Exeter, N.H.-based Lisa Carter-Knight, president of Drinkwater Marketing – who boasts numerous restaurant clients – said she’s been paying close attention to the subscription trend for the last two years and working with clients to understand the value. “We believe that subscription services are a great way for loyal fans of your restaurant/bar brand to share the customer experience with family and friends – a trend that was growing pre-COVID and will continue post-COVID,” she said.

Carter advises restaurant operators to use subscription services as a brand building tool. “Don’t look for high margins on subscriptions,” she said. “Your customers will recommend your brand via these subscriptions… It’s a complete win for the brand.”

Back in Brooklyn, The Four Horsemen’s Spina said that local subscription pick-ups can be tricky to manage, so she suggests that owners spread out the pick-up days. This way, customers will not arrive all at once. She also noted that bandwidth, organization, storage and packaging are other key areas to consider when launching a restaurant subscription program.

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