It was a terrible winter.
Not that the season is ever great for restaurants, but in 2019 the snowfall was especially heavy, and without enough intrepid customers to dine out in a storm, Tracy Singleton wasn't sure how her Birchwood Cafe was going to make ends meet.
But as a restaurant that works closely with local farmers to source its ingredients, the answer was staring Singleton in the face.
"We thought of the model farmers use," Singleton said of community-supported agriculture, or CSAs. "They like the prepayment upfront in winter. It helps them buy seeds and plan ahead."
If a restaurant could persuade customers to invest in the offseason in the same way, it might just meet its bottom line. "We wanted to let people know what we were going through and invite them to be a part of it," she said.
Singleton launched Birchwood's CSR (community-supported restaurant) program that winter, not imagining how useful it would become the following year as she fought to keep her restaurant afloat during a pandemic. Members pay a fee upfront and in return, get a higher-value gift card to use at their leisure. The concept took off as regulars looked for ways to ensure that their favorite restaurant stayed in business.
Programs mutually beneficial
Membership programs have long been a fixture at wineries and breweries, giving members perks like monthly bottles and exclusive access to new releases. And CSAs, of course, have also been a popular way to buy into a food business and get something in return on a regular basis.
Then came crowdfunding through sites such as Kickstarter, where people could support a restaurant project in its infancy or a specific need — say, a new stove — at tiers that yielded different rewards.
The latest pandemic pivot seems to combine all three. Memberships and subscriptions are one more way customers can stay connected without having to step into a restaurant. The options are proliferating as both diners and businesses see mutual benefits. And it looks like they might be here to stay.
Donna Minter used to live in the same Minneapolis neighborhood as the Birchwood, where she was a regular customer. When COVID hit, she felt responsible, in a way, for its survival. But even when restaurants reopened, Minter didn't feel comfortable dining out.
"We were already going there, patronizing them with curbside service, and when I saw they were doing this CSR, I was like, 'Why not invest and help them out?' " Minter said.
She bought in at the $1,000 level, giving the restaurant a sort of microloan it could use immediately. In return, she got a $1,250 gift card that she has been chipping away at ever since.
"It was a no-brainer," Minter said.
Travail Kitchen and Amusements has had a membership program for three years, but the idea came about years earlier when it ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to equip its first Robbinsdale location. Membership sales open up once a year during the holidays, and the tiers buy members everything from a Travail T-shirt to a private dinner for 20. All members get first dibs on reservations or beer releases, too.
Registrations grew during the last enrollment season, and chef Mike Brown chalks that up to a new reward inspired by another restaurant pivot: monthly virtual cooking classes with the chefs, and boxes of groceries to go with them.
"COVID has kind of pushed it into our world," Brown said. "It's one of those many new tools that people are finding in their tool belt."
Newer on the membership scene is the Lynhall. Over the holidays, Anne Spaeth's Minneapolis and Edina restaurants offered preordered meals and found them to be a big boost to cash flow while giving the kitchens some predictability. She wanted to keep that going.
"In advance, we know how many customers we are serving, how much food we need, how to staff, so it's sort of a no-lose proposition for a restaurant, when it's been so hard over the last year to develop a COVID-proof plan," Spaeth said.
Asking is a struggle
But even while subscriptions — and the regularity they offer — are proving to be a necessary crutch for businesses, some struggle with how to frame the proposition. Especially when customers are faced with dozens of online fundraisers and a prevailing sense that by not buying takeout or patronizing a favorite business, it could go under.
"That was the thing I wanted to stay away from the most," said Sergio Manancero, owner of La Doña Cervecería in Minneapolis. "My business is going to succeed or fail based on how well the pandemic is handled, and it feels like you're threatening people that you're going to lose your business if they don't come buy a beer."
Launching La Doña's Growler and Crowler Club, an annual membership that yields monthly beer pickups, was not about economic survival as much as a way to stay in touch with customers who can't come in to socialize anymore.
"We miss seeing people," Manancero said. "We spent time building this space to have them come here and participate in the community. We want them to still feel like they're a part of us."
Tevy Phann-Smith, who co-owns the cotton candy company Spinning Wylde with her husband, Ben Smith, grappled with the same issue.
As the brand grew from a stand at St. Paul's Keg and Case Market into its own shop across the street, the Smiths needed money to build their own commercial kitchen. Instead of hosting a fundraiser, Spinning Wylde is offering annual subscriptions for monthly boxes of candy and other goodies.
"I think there's a lot of emotional baggage around asking for help," Phann-Smith said. "We look at this as not specifically asking for help, but an opportunity for the community who love and support us to help us build again."
But for some businesses, subscriptions are proving to be the life raft they needed.
Last March, Simpls closed all three of its cafes — two in the downtown Minneapolis skyway and one near the University of Minnesota — and laid off all 28 employees. But there was a lot of leftover scratch-made soup the cafe was known for.
"Lucky for us, soup freezes really well," said co-owner Michael von Fange.
As he and his business partner brainstormed a new plan for the business, they wound up eating that soup.
"We got into the habit," von Fange said. "And we thought this could really get into people's habits, and felt we could provide a service to customers to create a win-win scenario."
The company relaunched last April as a soup delivery service, and customers can sign up to get 2, 3 or 4 quarts a week, plus bread and cookies.
It hasn't made up for skyway foot traffic, but it's keeping Simpls alive. Von Fange was able to rehire a third of the staff, and though soup subscriptions only bring in about 25% of typical sales, business is ticking up.
'We're not OK'
Minneapolis' Common Roots Cafe recovered "a chunk" of its lost business when it launched a membership program with three different subscriptions, including a weekly Shabbat dinner delivery.
Owner Danny Schwartzman says it helps, but only to a point.
"I feel like everyone wants to hear the 'People pivoted and now we're OK' [story], and we're not OK. I don't think anyone's really OK," Schwartzman said. "It's still smaller volume for more work than before. But it's keeping people in work, it's keeping us ordering ingredients, and it's keeping us in connection with customers, which is important."
And those customers may turn this trend into an expectation.
Chef Colin Murray of Wandering Kitchen catering has seen a rise in weekly subscribers to his chef's choice meal delivery service since the beginning of the pandemic, and he's pretty sure they'll stick around even after things normalize.
"I think the way we eat and do business is going to be different," Murray said. "People have had the time to look up all these fun things during quarantine, and they want new flavors and new directions."
Subscriptions and memberships
The Birchwood Cafe: A community-supported restaurant (CSR) share offers discounted large-sum gift cards, and the 8 Seasons of Soup CSA supplies soup and bread on a regular basis. CSRs from $300; soup CSA $125; birchwoodcafe.com
Common Roots Cafe: A membership gets you cafe discounts and delivery of weekly or biweekly boxes of baked goods, noshes or Shabbat dinners. $60 to $140; commonrootscafe.com
FRGMNT Coffee: Coffee and chocolates from around the world come monthly. From $26 a month; frgmntcoffee.com
La Doña Cerveceria: A Crowler and Growler Club membership prepays for beer on a weekly or biweekly basis for a year. From $200; dameladona.com
Lowry Hill Meats: Monthly Meat Club packages come with 3 pounds of butcher cuts, a pound each of bacon and sausages and a whole bird. From $80 a month; lowryhillmeats.com
The Lynhall: Lynhall Club members choose from a variety of monthly packages to-go, including baked goods, brunch and special dinners. $25 to $85; thelynhall.com
Simpls: Subscriptions buy you 2, 3 or 4 quarts of scratch-made soup, plus bread, delivered across the metro area. $24 to $48; simpls.com
Spinning Wylde: Cotton candy lovers who join the Subscription Kitchen for a year will get a monthly box with five flavors and other gifts. $25 a month; spinningwylde.com
Travail Kitchen and Amusements: You can only buy in once a year for membership at different tiers that get you swag, early access to reservations, cooking classes and exclusive meals. From $150; travailkitchen.com
Wandering Kitchen: This catering company delivers weekly meal plans to your door. From $14 to $22 per person to $65 for family of four; wanderingkitchen.com