Whether you can afford weekly restaurant visits or dining out usually means a plate of mac and cheese on the front stoop, restaurant deals can seem very appealing. They’re great ways to treat yourself and still save some bucks, right?
Not necessarily. Restaurants can offer a smorgasbord of gimmicks aimed at getting you in the door—and keeping you coming back.
Coupons, discount certificates and “Restaurant Week” promotions have exploded as the industry struggles for customer loyalty in a challenging environment. The National Restaurant Association says it recently surveyed consumers and found most describe the economy as fair or poor. The Washington, D.C.-based trade group adds that 4 out of 10 respondents said they didn’t go out to eat as much as they’d like.
Restaurant come-ons can be a treat for your budget, but you can just as easily get financial indigestion. It’s important to consider how much you receive for what you pay, read the fine print and ask questions.
Here’s a taste of seven gimmicks, accompanied by some advice to chew on. Next
The gimmick: These days, every community seems to have a Restaurant Week offering bargains on full-course meals. It’s nothing more than a marketing campaign to stir up business, warns Mark DeNinno, chef and owner of Chris’ Jazz Cafe in Philadelphia and the president of Premier Restaurant Consulting. The deals can seem better than they really are.
In Philadelphia, for example, diners are told they can get a $55 meal for $35. But DeNinno says you can easily dine for $35 per person at the majority of the restaurants anyway.
At top-tier restaurants, where a $35 meal would be considered a steal, Restaurant Week can mean smaller portions and corner-cutting, DeNinno says.
Customers complain that the Restaurant Week menu can be very limited and say diners might be better off just buying a la carte off the regular menu. Also, the promotions can be so popular that reservations fill up, wait staffs are strained and service suffers.
Food for thought: You may want to review Restaurant Week menus (often published online) before you bite. Next
Daily deal offers
The gimmick: Daily deal restaurant certificates and vouchers were all the rage not long ago. But some customers have been enraged—by all the ifs, ands and buts of how they work. To be sure, you can get some decent discounts. But be prepared to do some reading because the offers, from Groupon, LivingSocial and others, can be loaded with carefully worded fine print and restrictions.
Refunds may not be easy to obtain or may have time limits.
Restaurants may change their minds about accepting certificates that have been issued, leaving you to pursue a refund or other compensation from the issuer.
A daily deal’s “promotional value” typically has an expiration date, but you may have longer to use a voucher for the lower amount that you paid for it.
Vouchers and certificates can carry minimum-purchase requirements, and tax and tip are extra. The deals may not cover alcoholic beverages.
Usage restrictions can include one certificate per person, per table, per month and so on.
Food for thought: Know that daily deals often come with a ton of rules that can affect the ultimate value of the offer. Next
The gimmick: In 2012, a popular casual dining chain emailed customers with “Free entree and more savings inside” in the subject line. The coupon in the email was not for a free entree after all but instead offered only half-off a second entree when you bought the first one.
Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org and a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general, contacted the company over its misleading grabber. It sent an apologetic email to customers.
Dworsky warns that other restaurant deals actually offering half off can be a “gotcha,” too. For example, one site offers $50 worth of restaurant certificates for $25 in what’s described as a half-off deal.
But you won’t snag a $50 meal for half-price because what you get for your $25 is five $10 certificates, and only one can be used at a time.
Depending on the cost of your order plus tip and taxes—which aren’t covered by the certificate—you’re probably unlikely to get any meal for half off.
Food for thought: Read all the details and do the math for yourself on restaurant freebies and deals that seem to suggest your bill will be cut in half. Next
Asterisk fine print
The gimmick: A restaurant chain might offer customers of a certain age or who are members of a certain affinity group 20 percent off or some other discount during certain hours.*
Did you catch the asterisk? At the bottom of the ad or coupon, in the last line of the fine-print section, you may find this: “*Valid at participating restaurants only.”
“The franchise system of restaurants, in which each location can make their own decisions about things like coupon acceptance, can make couponing there very difficult,” says Bill Wunner, founder of CouponsIntheNews.com.
He says a chain owner could issue a coupon that individual franchises don’t have to accept. Or, a franchise or group of franchises under the same owner can issue their own coupon that’s not valid elsewhere. You’ve got little recourse if the discount is declined, Wunner says.
Food for thought: If you run into the “at participating restaurants only” disclaimer, call ahead and make sure the discount will be honored at your location before you show up expecting to use it. Next
Holiday meals and daily specials
The gimmick: Ever notice that when servers give you the “specials” of the day, they don’t mention prices? They probably hope you’ll be too embarrassed to ask, especially if you’re on a date, says Gregory Karp, who writes the Spending Smart column for the Chicago Tribune. Those meals often are among the most expensive choices, he says.
Another pricey choice is dining out on holidays. New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are the big trifecta of holiday meals, DeNinno says.
Prices go up because of customer demand and because restaurateurs are charged more by their vendors, he says.
“That gets passed on to consumers,” DeNinno says. “Valentine’s and New Year’s are big for lobster, which might be $5.99 a pound all year round. But a week or two before (the holiday), the price goes to $10 a pound because everyone needs it to run on their menus.”
Food for thought: Ask your server for prices on the night’s specials. Stay in and cook at home to save on holiday meals, or postpone your celebration until the following day or weekend. Next
The gimmick: Beer, wine and spirits served at restaurants can be enough to make anyone a teetotaler.
A bottle of spirits is marked up about 300 percent; wine, 200 percent, DeNinno says. Beer is even more, depending on whether it’s bottled or on tap. A bottled beer could be marked up 400 percent while a draft might be 600 percent.
And the cheaper the wine, the greater the profit compared to a more expensive vintage, Karp adds.
Soft drinks, tea, coffee and bottled water also have huge price markups, he says.
“Restaurants often operate on thin margins and have to make their profit somewhere,” Karp says. “It just doesn’t have to come from you.”
Food for thought: You could bring your own bottle to the restaurant, though you might be charged a corking or “corkage” fee. Or, you could make “drinks back at the house” part of your dining-out routine and order tap water with dinner, Karp suggests. You won’t have to worry about driving. Next
Vanishing gift cards
The gimmick: Restaurant gift cards are pitched as a convenient way for you to give a tasty present. But despite federal protections, gift cards still have a nasty way of expiring if you’re not paying attention.
It’s one of the most infuriating things that diners encounter, DeNinno says.
Under federal rules, gift cards:
Can’t expire for five years from their purchase date or the last date they’re reloaded with value.
Must show the expiration date in a place that’s clearly visible on the card.
May charge inactivity fees, but only once a month after the card hasn’t been used for a year.
Paper gift certificates are not protected by these rules, says Carole Reynolds, senior attorney in the Federal Trade Commission’s financial practices division.
If you lose a restaurant gift card, you may be out of luck, she says. Gift cards often aren’t protected the way lost debit or credit cards are. Some issuers offer protection, but it’s not required.
Food for thought: When giving or using gift cards, as with other restaurant deals, make sure you understand all the terms. Use cards as soon as possible. Back to the beginning
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