Red Robins $99 burger pass is good for a burger a month for a year. / Red Robin Red Robins $99 burger pass is good for a burger a month for a year. / Red Robin

Red Robin’s $99 Burger Pass Is the Poor Man’s Tock

A simple promotion — a year’s worth of burgers for $99 — is more evidence that restaurants are rethinking their relationships with diners, both transactional and experiential.

Following on the success of Olive Garden’s Pasta Pass, which sold out at 22,000 people in less than one second, Red Robin will launch its $99 Year of Yummm offer on December 1st at 12 a.m. EST (may be helpful to think of this as midnight on Thursday, the 30th, burger fans).

While this year of free burgers offer is really just clever marketing around the fact that Red Robin will send purchasers a $15 gift card (which can be used for anything on the menu) on the first of every month for a year, it’s still a change to the typical restaurant transaction: guests pre-pay for their restaurant experience. And, while this is not-so-secretly just a gift card, it’s marketed as more of a “give yourself the burger experience” than a gift for someone else.

Rethinking Relationships With Guests

So what does this have to do with Tock, the reservations service that made a name for itself by offering pre-paid, or ticketed, reservations at Chicago’s Alinea and other notable restaurants? A guest who purchases the burger pass is pre-paying for a specific experience. In an interview with Skift Table earlier this year, Tock founder and CEO, Nick Kokonas, said, “If you think about it, every form of entertainment other than restaurants you end up paying for something up front. If you go to the theater, the play is going to go on regardless of whether you show up or not.” This thinking is starting to make its way into casual dining restaurants, and if Olive Garden’s success is any indication, it’s poised to take off.

While restaurants appear to be a largely reactive endeavor, welcoming and seating any number of guests each day and night, restaurant operations are actually proactive. Everything from staffing to food ordering to recipe and menu development depends on predicting the flow of guests into and out of a restaurant. This is why Tock works so well at fine dining restaurants whose seatings are a known and limited quantity.

Reservations — when people actually honor the reservation they’ve made — also help with predictions and projections of a known quantity. Casual dining restaurants like Red Robin don’t have the benefit of these predictions by nature. Instead, they provide a quick and predictable service any given day. So what draws a guest to Red Robin versus any other burger chain? A $15 gift card in your mailbox is one good way to stand above the others.

Certainly, Tock’s ticketing functionality appeals to a subset of diners comfortable with the economics of fine dining. It also assumes a diner’s ability to pay upfront for a potentially pricey dinner that’s a month or more in the future. Red Robin has tailored the pay-ahead model to its customers by offering a deal — a $99 upfront investment will yield $180 worth of Red Robin experiences. This is no dinner for two at Eleven Madison Park, but it is predictable dinner for one every month for a year.

Efforts like the Year of Yumm and the Olive Garden Pasta Pass reflect a subtle yet important shift in the way restaurants operate. Fast food and fast casual restaurants take your money before serving your food; sit-down restaurants have largely been the opposite in order to encourage an upsell — dessert, starters, or one more drink.

These sort of pay-ahead deals, whether in gift card or ticketing form still allow restaurants to upsell a guest, and allow guests to customize the experience. But they take some of the guesswork away from planning and preparation, and offer a restaurant a near guaranteed diner in a more powerful way than just making a reservation.

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