Restaurants that accept food from the internet and other companies can now operate as food clubs, allowing diners to join a dining group that includes their favorite chef.
The practice, which is currently illegal under state law, allows diners with limited incomes to share the cost of food at restaurants they frequent.
“We’re trying to make it as convenient as possible for people to go to restaurants without having to buy anything,” said Jason Smith, the chief executive of food club group The Restaurant Network.
The concept of a food and beverage club was first introduced in the U.S. in 2011.
“This has been a long-standing practice in our industry,” said Michael T. Filippone, president and chief executive officer of the American Beverage Association, a trade group for the beverage industry.
The industry group, which represents more than 600 restaurants and food clubs in the United States, estimates there are more than 100 million Americans who participate in the practice, with more than 15 million paying members.
The American Beverages Association estimates there is an average of 3.6 food club members per restaurant, and some restaurants offer a membership fee that ranges from $40 to $60.
“The average cost of a membership in a food service or beverage club is about $30,” said David Z. Leib, president of the National Restaurant Association, an industry group.
“It’s just a simple way to help people,” said Mike St. Pierre, a professor of public policy at Columbia University and the author of “Foods, Lifestyle, and the American Economy.”
“The idea of this is to provide a mechanism for people who are trying to cut back on their spending to share in the costs of their meal,” he said.
While the concept has existed for years in restaurants, the industry is starting to catch on in the consumer realm.
In October, McDonald’s announced it would start offering memberships for the first time.
On Tuesday, Kraft Foods Inc. announced plans to start offering food clubs and a restaurant-beverage menu to its U.K. franchisees.
A food-service group that sells food has also become popular among consumers, with restaurants such as McDonalds, Burger King and Subway serving as an example.
While many restaurants are offering free meals, many of the new businesses are offering members to help reduce the cost to the consumer, according to industry experts.
“When people are eating out and they are having a meal at a fast-food restaurant, it’s a really important part of their diet,” said Chris Burditt, an economist with the Restaurant Opportunities Center.
“They are getting a meal, getting a portion of the food, and that’s really what they’re paying for, and so they are taking some of the risk of the meal.”
The group says the idea of a restaurant dining club is a positive one because it creates “a community” in which all the diners can be involved.
“These new businesses provide an opportunity to expand their dining experience,” said Burdtt.
“Many people feel that dining out is a luxury, that they can’t do it on their own.
This provides a safe, low-cost way for people, with limited income, to go out to dinner and have fun.”
The Food and Beverage Institute, an advocacy group for food and beverages, says that the food-and-biscuit-based dining industry is estimated to be worth $200 billion annually.
The group is lobbying for federal legislation that would legalize the concept.
“There is no law that prohibits restaurants from offering members a choice of a meal.
The idea of offering a meal membership is really an opportunity for people in need to get involved,” said Michelle F. Schmitz, executive director of the Food and Biscuit Institute.
“And it’s really good for people because it provides a level of community that’s not available at any other meal service.”