Are Subscription Models the Future of Restaurants?

From Panera Bread to your local coffee shop

Restaurant L'Office
Could a subscription model work for dining out?
Nathalie Mohadjer/Creative Commons

The pandemic is forcing many restaurants around the country (and around the world) to reimagine how they operate. Could some changes, like increased outdoor dining in New York City, end up staying after COVID-19 is under control? There’s been plenty of discussion as to what restaurants will look like after the pandemic.But a new article at Grub Street offers one other potential change to keep in mind: the potential rise of subscription models for some of your favorite restaurants.

The article, by Rachel Sugar, notes that Panera Bread has been experimenting with a subscription model for unlimited coffee this year:

This winter, the company launched unlimited coffee subscriptions: For $8.99 a month, you get “free” unlimited coffee — as often as once every two hours, if you really want to make the most of it — with unlimited refills that are, again, “free.”

Since then, Panera Bread has made this subscription free for the summer; if you can get 5 friends to sign up for the program, it’s free for even longer. The thinking behind it is understandable: it’s not difficult to convince someone who’s getting a free coffee to buy something else once inside. Eduardo Luz, the chief brand and concept officer for Panera, compared their program to Netflix’s model.

It’s not difficult to imagine this kind of system working for other fast casual restaurants. But could it also function outside of the chain world? The Grub Street article notes that a few restaurants are giving it a go, many of which are offering similar unlimited coffee deals. As Sugar writes, it’s a chaotic time for restaurants, and experimentation may the only way that some survive.

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