How This Restaurant’s Membership Club Drives Repeat Business

Join the “Take-Care-Of-Me Club” at El Lopo, and the staff at the San Francisco bar and tapas spot will do just that. For $89 per month, members of the club receive $100 in dining credits, plus the option to let El Lopo take charge of the full dining experience.

“The idea is to take away all of the less fun parts from dining, so we try to make the experience feel less transactional,” says owner Daniel Azarkman. “The ideal member experience is, they show up, seat themselves, and we start bringing them things we already know they like, plus a few surprises. When they’re getting full or need to take off, they leave whenever ready and payment is handled automatically.”

Azarkman launched the club in spring of 2021 as a way to encourage diners to return after reopening El Lopo following pandemic shutdowns. Within its first year, the “Take-Care-Of-Me Club” has garnered 26 members. 

“For us, it’s a loyalty program that makes our regulars feel appreciated and come more often,” says Azarkman. “We have members that come three, even four times in a week, whereas previously they came about once a week.”

In addition to dining credits, members receive perks like standing reservations, unlimited by-the-glass wine options, and even the ability to gift a free drink to a stranger upon every visit. There’s a higher-tier dining credit option, too, where members pay $175 per month for $200 in credits. To learn more about the program, we chatted with Azarkman, who shares his insights into how it’s paying off.

I’m curious when members of the Take-Care-Of-Me Club opt into the full experience, how do you decide what to serve? Is there a set strategy involved that strives to balance high-margin items with items that might feel exclusive?

Right now we have 26 members, and it’s not about the perfect mix of items. Our selection comes from what we learn about their taste, both explicitly and intuitively, which we can do with such a small group. We also have a survey they can fill out when they sign up, and members can always opt to order [off the menu] à la carte

It’s a way to become an official regular and have everyone at El Lopo know your name, what you like, how you want it, where your favorite seat is – all of that. We’ll keep some notes, like allergens, dislikes, and a few strong preferences. 

The real goal is just to give our regulars a reason to come back more often, and in that way, it works financially. The discount more than pays for itself in just how often members visit.

How often do guests opt for the take-care-of-me experience versus choosing menu items a la carte?

About 90% of the time they’ll say, “I’ll take a look [at the menu], but go ahead and get some things going for me.” About 10% to 15% of the time, they opt into having us bring them whatever we want. Regardless, at least half of the time, they want a surprise thrown in. 

We change the menus pretty frequently, and when we can, we’ll also have some off-menu items. Say we get a small quantity of fresh razor clams – we’ll save it for our Take-Care-of-Me members.

Members also get standing reservations. How many tables per night do you set aside for members, and have you run into any instances where you don’t have enough seats?

We sure have. Members are understanding about that, and they’ll tend to make reservations if they want to come on a high-demand day like Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve. I don’t know if we’d realistically be able to keep that perk if our membership got much bigger. But for now, in the worst case scenario, we’ll pull a table out of the closet, and set it up somewhere. 

You mentioned the discount you give to members more than pays for itself. Can you share any information on how financially this works for you?

It balances out because the vast majority of our members go over their credit allotment. Only three of our members have the higher-level plan, and many of those who have the lower-level plan are still spending well over $200 a month. The average member is probably spending $600 or $700 a month, with just that $11 discount. It’s almost like a volume discount.

What kind of customer feedback have you received?

They appreciate the seamlessness. We’ve actually had some members who asked to discontinue because they’re trying to cut back on spending or whatever reason, but they’ve asked us to keep their credit card on file. So they’re giving up the monthly discount, but they still want that seamless experience where they can just wave goodbye and walk out when they’re finished [dining]. For gratuity, we do a default 20%, but you can specify a different number when signing up.

Do you have any specific strategies you use to market the program to ensure guests are aware of it?

We have printed postcards that describe it, and those are scattered throughout the place, as table tents or on signature pads. I’ve found that the best way to plug it is when someone opts for the “take care of me” experience that’s on our menu. We’ve had that almost since we opened, and that allows the customer to give us a few quick guidelines – how hungry they are, what they’re willing to spend tonight, and what they can and can’t eat.

If they had a good experience, when we hand them the check, we’ll take an opportunity to hand them a postcard and say, “Well you can do this all the time.”

Where do you envision the future of the Take-Care-Of-Me Club? Do you see it continuing to grow?

One day, realistically, there will need to be a cap on the number of members we have, especially if we keep the reservation perk. At the end of the day, we only have 45 seats. We’d also need to keep better written logs. I thought about just keeping a binder behind the bar with pictures of our members and a printout of their survey entries.

Where do envision the future of subscription models going in the industry as a whole?

It’s definitely grown in popularity. We partner with [restaurant subscription management software The Third Place, and it seems like they have double the restaurant partners since we started, and I have restaurants from the other side of the country emailing me to ask how it’s worked for us. I don't see any reason for a restaurant not to do it, with the exception of places that are focused on tourists.

Having a credit card on file is seen as a bigger perk than I realized, and I think more restaurants should be doing that, even if they’re not willing to take the further step of creating a subscription program. When you let customers set up a house account, it’ll get them to come back more frequently.

Are there any other perks that have surprised you?

Another successful perk we just started is a quarterly event just for members and plus-ones. We call it “Take Care of Me Night”. They buy a $55 ticket, and that covers all of their food. It’s a five-hour window, and members can come whenever they want, so it’s not pre-fixe – we just serve whatever’s coming out of the kitchen at the time. We’re not expecting to profit on the food side. It’s half “thank you for being a member”, and the other half is driven by beverage sales. We also host them on Thursdays, which is not a totally off night, but we wanted it to be somewhat convenient for our regulars.

We’ve done two so far. The attendance for the first was just under 25 people, and the last one was up to 32 people. We use it to try and get members to get to know each other. They can make friends on this commonality that they’re members. We put board games out, and we encourage people to get up and walk around. The main course for the last one was a crab boil, so we set up a table that seats 12 people, lined it with newspapers, and dumped steamed crabs on it. A bunch of strangers sat at the same table and started cracking.