How Valuable are Restaurant Loyalty Programs?
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Wooing customers with loyalty programs is not just a practice of hotel chains, airlines and banks. Today I want to highlight some popular restaurants with loyalty programs that can boost your rewards the next time you dine out.
Before getting into the details, let me start by pointing out that this is far from an exhaustive list of every restaurant loyalty program out there. You may have a favorite local spot that offers one (like The Cooper, our favorite Sunday brunch spot in Palm Beach Gardens, FL), or it may be a regional chain that wouldn’t appeal to the majority of readers. I tried to select restaurants with broad coverage across the country.
Remember too that most of the rewards outlined below are in addition to the points or miles you’d earn by swiping your credit card. As a result, be sure to use a card that offers a bonus on dining purchases like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which earns 3x points at restaurants, or the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express, both of which offer 2x points at restaurants in the US (this extends to international restaurants on the Sapphire Preferred as well). Just be aware that a couple of programs require you to pay with a registered gift card to earn points or perks, though you should be able to earn bonus points by purchasing those gift cards with a travel rewards credit card.
So how much value can you get from restaurant loyalty programs? Here’s a quick overview chart for the programs I’ll be analyzing, with additional details below:
|Restaurant||Return on Spending|
|BJs Brewhouse||Up to 7.1%|
|California Pizza Kitchen||5%|
|Dunkin’ Donuts||Up to 10%|
|Rita’s||Up to 14.3%|
|Starbucks||Varies (up to 10%)*|
As you can see, these programs offers some pretty solid rewards, with some providing double-digit returns on your spending. Of course, it’s important to consider the details of each program, so let’s take a closer look at each one.
The first restaurant on the list is BJ’s Brewhouse, a chain that started almost 40 years ago as a pizza shop but now serves a variety of dishes and beer in locations across the country. If you haven’t already, be sure to join BJ’s Premier Rewards, which allows you to earn 1 point for every dollar you spend. You can then redeem these points for future discounts or free food, with the following four awards available:
- 75 points = $5 off (6.67% return)
- 100 points = Free Pizookie (6.75%)
- 150 points = $10 off (6.67%)
- 350 points = $25 off (7.14%)
As you can see, you’re best off saving your points until you’ve reached the 350-point threshold for a $25 discount, as that offers the best return. Just note that you must have qualifying activity at least once every 12 months or all of your points will expire.
California Pizza Kitchen
Another popular chain with a loyalty program is California Pizza Kitchen (with locations in many states other than California). The program is called Pizza Dough Rewards and provides a free small plate worth $3 – $6 upon joining and then rewards you with a $5 reward for every $100 you spend. Unfortunately, this reward expires 90 days after being issued, so you have a limited timeframe in which to use it. You’re also eligible for a free dessert during your birthday month, a “sweet” incentive to be a part of the program, even if you only visit a location once in a while.
One of the more unique loyalty programs is offered by Caribou Coffee. The Caribou Perks program starts rewarding you with a free medium beverage after your first visit as a member and this continues with subsequent visits. However, there’s no published earning or redemption criteria; instead, you receive rewards unexpectedly. Here’s what the FAQ page says about these rewards:
“Perks can vary based on when and what you buy. Sometimes it will be a size upgrade, or it could be 50% off your next beverage, or even one of your favorite Caribou drinks on the house!”
It goes on to say that the more you visit, the more you’ll be rewarded. Unfortunately, without explicitly identifying how you’ll be rewarded, it’s hard to identify the true value you can get from the program. Let’s just hope that Delta doesn’t take a page out of Caribou’s playbook and stop publishing earning rates in addition to its lack of award charts!
If you’d rather participate in the loyalty program of a coffee chain with published value, be sure to join Dunkin’ Donuts’ DD Perks program. You’ll earn 200 points for joining and can bank 5 points per dollar spent on food and beverage items at participating locations. Whenever your balance hits 200 points, you’ll earn a free beverage coupon valid for 90 days from the date of issuance. You’ll also enjoy a free beverage on your birthday. These coupons are good for a complimentary iced/hot coffee, tea, latte, hot chocolate or Coolatta in any size. Naturally the exact value of this reward depends on what free item you get, but since you’re basically getting a free drink for every $40 you spend, your return could easily be 10% or even higher.
The only catch with the program is that you must register and then use a DD card to earn points; regular purchases with cash or credit cards will not count. In addition, any point balances of less than 200 points will expire after a year of inactivity, so keep both of those things in mind when signing up for the program.
If smoothies and juices are more your speed, be sure to sign up for the Jamba Insider Rewards program. You’ll get a $3 discount on your first visit after joining and will then earn 1 point per dollar spent. Every 35 points will get you another $3 coupon, giving you a return of roughly 8.6%. Like many of the other programs above, you’ll also enjoy a birthday reward: in this case, a small smoothie.
One of my favorite chains when traveling is Jersey Mike’s, serving fresh subs at over 1,200 locations across 40+ states, and the Shore Points Rewards program allows some of those purchases to be free. The earning and redemption rates vary depending on the type of sub you get, but you’ll earn 3 points for a kid’s meal, 4 points for a mini sub, 6 points for a regular sub/wrap/sub-in-a-tub or 12 points for a giant sub. You can then redeem these points as follows:
- 48 points for a free mini sub
- 72 points for a free regular sub, wrap or sub-in-a-tub
- 144 points for a free giant sub
In essence, if you always get the same type of sub, you’ll earn a free one for every 12 you purchase, giving you a return of 8.3% (though note this could be higher from a purely financial standpoint if you, say, always purchase a giant but then redeem points for a smaller sub).
For those readers who enjoy southwestern food (and can’t get enough of the “Welcome to Moe’s!” greeting), be sure to join Moe’s Rockin’ Rewards. You’ll receive a free cup of queso after signing up and will earn 10 points per dollar spent from that point onward. 1,000 points will then earn you a $10 credit, giving you a flat return of 10% on spending. The program also awards you a free birthday burrito every year.
Another loyalty program without published earning or redemption rates is offered by Panera Bread. The MyPanera program is similar to Caribou’s in that you’re never sure what you’re going to get. Here’s how the FAQs describe it:
“Just present your card every time you visit; we’ll swipe it and once we get an idea of what bakery-cafe items you prefer, we’ll do our best to reward you with more surprises based on what you love.”
At least this program claims to base your rewards on prior purchasing behavior, but it’s hard to peg a value on a program that doesn’t identify how and when you’ll earn rewards. Nevertheless, if you frequent Panera, signing up for the program can’t hurt!
With summer rapidly approaching, you may already be thinking about cooling down with a nice ice cream. If you live in one of the 33 states with a Rita’s Italian Ice, be sure to sign up for Rita’s Rewards. The program is very straightforward; you earn a punch on your virtual reward card by scanning the QR code every time you visit a Rita’s location. After 7 visits (where you purchase at least a regular-sized Italian Ice), you’ll get a free regular ice, custard or Gelati on your 8th visit. Since it’s essentially a Buy 7, Get 1 Free program, your return could be up to 14.3%, depending on exactly what you order each visit.
The final chain we’ll profile is another coffee establishment: Starbucks and its eponymous loyalty program Starbucks Rewards. This program underwent a devaluation last year, and sadly things have gotten even worse since. Under the current scheme, you earn 2 stars for ever dollar you spend. However, these stars only translate into rewards when you earn 300 points in a 12-month period and are upgraded to Gold status. From that point on, you’ll earn a free drink or food item for every 125 stars you earn. In other words, you have to spend $150 at Starbucks locations first before you can enjoy the privilege of redeeming points for free items.
That being said, being a regular Green member isn’t completely worthless, as you’ll receive a free reward on your birthday and enjoy complimentary in-store refills. It’s just a little frustrating that you can’t do anything with your points until you reach Gold status, which would be like an airline awarding you miles but then only allowing you to redeem them once you reached low-tier elite status. Keep in mind too that Starbucks Rewards is like Dunkin’ Donuts’ DD Perks program in that you must register and then pay with a Starbucks card to earn points (rather than a credit card).
Dining out is a great way to earn bonus points on credit cards, and if the restaurant you’re visiting happens to have a loyalty program of its own, it’s a perfect way to double-dip. While I’d love to see additional brands start to offer incentives for repeat customers, it’s nice that a handful of well-known chains do reward their loyal customers for visiting. Hopefully this post has pointed out some new ways for you to make the most of your next meal!
What are your favorite dining loyalty programs?
Featured picture courtesy of Hero Images via Getty Images.
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