Money at 30: 4 Restaurant Reward Programs I Actually Make Use Of

Remember the days when you’d walk into your local sub shop and, upon checkout, they’d offer you a punch card to keep track of your purchases and earn rewards? Well, those days are gone… sort of. While the concept still exists at many businesses, they’ve mostly been digitized. Still, the results are largely the same: you make a purchase or two and proceed to forget about your account and never reach the reward level.

I’ve definitely been guilty of joining loyalty programs “just because” and then letting them sit idle. However there are at least four restaurant rewards programs that I not only use frequently but have also been handsomely rewarded from. Here are my top loyalty program picks and what I like about them:


This is far and away my most-used rewards program. Unfortunately for newbies, it’s also the one that takes the greatest amount of buy-in before you start reaping rewards.

Starbucks’ loyalty program is run through their gift cards. Basically, in order to join, all you need to do is register one of their gift cards and use it to make purchases. For each dollar you spend, you’ll earn two stars and, when you reach 300 stars, you’ll obtain the fancy Gold Card status. As the name implies, reaching this level entitles you to special gift card emblazoned with your name on it. More importantly, now when you earn 125 stars, you can cash them in for free drinks, food items, and more. You’ll also get to participate in special promotions to score many more stars and keep the free drinks rolling in.

Honestly, while having Gold Card status can certainly be rewarding, the struggle to get there is real. However there are now a few ways around it, including their new-ish Starbucks Rewards debit card (there’s also a credit card, but I wouldn’t recommend it). That said, if you don’t already have a Starbucks habit, maybe it’s best not to start one.

Red Robin

I’ve had a soft spot for Red Robin ever since I was a kid. Maybe it was the funky decor, maybe it was the bottomless steak fries, or maybe… ok, it was the steak fries. Anyway, another aspect of Red Robin that I remember fondly is the free burger on your birthday. This awesome promotion still exists but taking advantage of it will require you to join the chain’s free Royalty rewards program.

Luckily there are other benefits to being Royalty as well. For example, for every nine entrees you purchase, you can get a free gourmet burger. Additionally, I regularly receive e-mails with special offers such as Tavern Double Tuesdays where I can score a free Tavern Double burger (my personal go-to) with the purchase of an entree and a drink. As a result, our budget loves Red Robin as much as 8-year-old me did.


Once upon a time, I swore up and down that Chipotle was better than Qdoba (although I still visited both from time to time). However, a few years ago, Qdoba pulled ahead as my clear favorite. There are a number of reasons for this — including the fact they discount my boring streak, rice, and cheese burrito to $5 — but part of the credit goes to their loyalty program.

Admittedly Qdoba’s rewards program is a bit confusing as it features four different levels that accrue points differently. Still, the main point is that you can earn points for each dollar you spend that can then be used to nab free items. Additionally, with me being at the Pro level (I’m four visits away from the top level, “Champ”), I can enjoy $2 chips and queso during my visit. As a result, I currently have three free entrees’ worth of points in the bank.


Just a few months ago, the ambitious Plenti reward system that united multiple retailers, restaurants, and gas station under one loyalty program was disbanded. This seemed like a loss at the time but, when Chili’s revealed its new rewards system, I was quickly on board. The real star here is that, with each visit, you can get either free chips and salsa or a free non-alcoholic beverage. Since we usually opt for the 2 for $22 deal that includes an appetizer, it’s typically my Coke that’s getting comped. This amounts to a $3 savings each time. Like with the others on this list, there are also occasional special offers as well — but really the”Every visit. Every time.” perk is enough for me to sing this loyalty program’s praises.

These days, there are many different restaurant loyalty programs out there, but how many do you actually make use of? While I don’t expect that your top list with perfectly match mine, hopefully this will at least give some insight into how each of these programs works and whether you can benefit from them. With that, happy dining and may you enjoy many free eats.


Kyle Burbank

Kyle is a freelance writer and author whose first book, "The E-Ticket Life" is now available on Amazon. In addition to his weekly "Money at 30" column on Dyer News, he is also the editorial director and a writer for the Disney fan site and has recently starting publsihing his own personal finance blog at

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