Panera Adds Free Delivery Subscription Option as Restaurants Rethink Memberships

As restaurants explore more possibilities for subscription commerce, Panera has added a $0 delivery option.

On Wednesday (Feb. 22), fast-casual giant Panera Bread, which has more than 2,000 locations across the U.S. and Canada, announced the addition of an annual membership option to its Unlimited Sip Club beverage subscription, offering 12 months for the price of 10 with the further benefit of free delivery on digital orders.

The move builds on the company’s decision last year to expand its coffee and tea subscription to include a wider range of beverages.

“We have seen incredible response to Unlimited Sip Club since we launched nationally last year, both for our guests and for our business,” Eduardo Luz, the chain’s chief brand and concept officer, said in a statement. “Today, one in four Panera transactions come from Unlimited Sip Club members — the program is helping to drive transaction growth despite a highly inflationary environment, and to bring in new guests to experience everything Panera has to offer.”

Panera is not the only restaurant chain to offer free delivery via paid subscription. For instance, Chinese-inspired casual dining chain P.F. Chang’s, which has more than 300 restaurants across 22 countries, announced last fall the launch of a rewards program subscription, offering free delivery, expanded rewards-earning opportunities and “VIP-level service” for $6.99 a month.

“An overall trend we are seeing in loyalty programs is that consumers are not limited to just item-based rewards … as the benefit of subscription models,” Art Kilmer, the brand’s chief operating officer, said in an interview with PYMNTS at the time. “Rather, consumers are seeing more service-based program benefits as well that allow for engagement and interaction with the brand.”

Additionally, convenience retail giant 7-Eleven has its 7NOW Gold Pass free delivery subscription, launched about a year ago. It provides free delivery of its hot food and a selection of retail items, among other benefits, for $5.95 per month.

Previous restaurant subscription offerings, such as Taco Bell’s Taco Lover’s Pass, Subway’s Footlong Pass, Sweetgreen’s Sweetpass and Del Arte’s pizza subscription in France, and Panera’s beverage subscription, have offered free daily products or deals.

Demand for restaurant subscriptions are relatively low, but these programs can still be a valuable way to drive loyalty. According to research from PYMNTS’ study “Digital Divide: Restaurant Subscribers And Loyalty Programs,” only 17% of consumers are “very” or “extremely” interested in being provided a restaurant subscription service, and 25% are neutral to the concept.

Yet those who are open to the model are the brands’ most loyal customers. The study, which drew from a December survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults, found that 78% of subscribers and 73% of those interested in subscriptions reported being very or extremely loyal toward their preferred QSRs. Conversely, just 41% of those uninterested in subscriptions said the same.

“There isn’t a company that we talk to today that isn’t thinking about in some way offering a recurring model for products that traditionally had not been purchased that way,” Trace Galloway, chief strategy officer at Vindicia, told PYMNTS in an interview. “A good loyalty or membership or club concept will build brand affinity and loyalty in a way that, long term, will serve those businesses very well.”