Served: The Restaurant Coupon Invasion


Hannah Howard has worked in several restaurants, but she's made the switch to the grocery side of the industry. She's now a cheesemonger for a small market chain, and will share her experience here.

20080616-servedbug.jpgMy staff and I are running around like crazy, getting ready for what will be a busy night, when I get a shoulder tap from our bartender Eric.

"There's a lady on the phone who wants to know if she and her friend can both use a Living Social coupon."

I feel my face scrunch up. This sounds familiar.

"Is her name Susan Uttemeyer (not really her name)?"

"That's her!"

"That's weird," I told Eric, "I just spoke with her."

The Susan Story

Susan Uttemeyer first called a few hours earlier. She talked with one of our servers. She had purchased a coupon through Living Social. On each voucher, it clearly states: "Limit of one per table." But Mrs. Uttemeyer wanted to dine with her friend, and they both wanted to get their discount, rules be damned.

The server told her, smartly, "I'm sorry, only one coupon is valid per table." But Mrs. U. was relentless. She really, really wanted to dine with her friend, and she wanted to do so two coupon-ed. The server transferred the call to me.

"Why don't you use one voucher this time," I suggested, "and then come back another time and use your second?"

"Listen," she said, "I'm a regular." But I had never seen her name or heard or voice, so she was a regular who hadn't dined with us in well over a year.

"Then you can understand we are a small business, and we have to stick by these rules so we don't lose money," I told her, hoping to elicit understanding.

"Rules are meant to be broken," she retorted.

"Ha!" I wanted to say. "When it suits your interests!"

So I begrudgingly made her and her friend separate reservations at separate tables, so they could each get $50 off their bill.

Coupons Galore

Several months ago, our owner Debbie signed up for one of the first of Philadelphia OpenTable's Groupon-style deals. Unless you're living deep in a hole, you've heard of Groupon and its siblings: Living Social, Buy With Me, Deal On, and the rest. For restaurants, websites like Zagat and OpenTable offer nearly identical packages.

They all work the same way. A customer pays, say $25 to one of these companies, for $50 to spend at a given business. Groupon, etc. pockets half of that $25 and writes a check to the partnering restaurant (hotel, hot air balloon company, or whatnot) for the other $12.50. You can negotiate a little about the percentage of this split, but not much.

So that means every time someone sticks a LivingSocial printout in their checkbook, our restaurant is subtracting $50 from the bill, and eating $37.50 of that $50. We knew this when we signed up. The con: this can get expensive, fast. We are not jacking up our prices, as I'm sure some establishments are compelled to do.

But we hoped initially, and still hope, that the pros are pretty substantial. As a new(ish) restaurant with a nonexistent PR budget, we liked that these promotions would bring in new business. We hoped they'd help clue in a big part of the world that we existed, and that we were a great restaurant.

Hooray for New Business!

And they did! "I never heard of this place," many a guest has told me, "until I saw this deal on OpenTable. I did some research and it seemed great! I'm so glad I discovered you." Discounts make good pushes for people to try something and somewhere new.

And then there are the Susan Uttemeyers of the world. Coupon clippers. I can usually guess them by their dining behavior. Our check average is about $50 per person, and yet they will find a way to make their dinner for two total $51.01. We can be sure they will never be back. Unless, of course, they have another coupon.

I'm genuinely thankful for the business Living Social and OpenTable have brought us. But we've decided to take a break.

Not a day goes by without a call from TravelZoo, or Yelp. The newest flurry of correspondence is from media outlets (local TV, radio, and newspapers) who are using free advertising space as a carrot for signing up with their company's deals. I used to avoid their phone calls. Now I tell them: "No thank you." We're opting out.

So Mrs. Uttemeyer dines with her husband. At the table next to her, we seat her friend and her friend's husband. The whole thing seems awkward and laughable. At the end of her meal, she asks to speak with me again.

"How was your dinner, Mrs. Uttemeyer?"

"It was lovely," she says, "But as a regular, I think you should bend the rules for me." Rules, she reminded me again, they're meant to be broken. Again, I'm at my restaurant every single night. I have never seen this woman in my life.

"Thanks for your feedback," I tell her, "I'm glad you enjoyed your dinner."

"You know, I know Mark, who works here."

For the past 18 months, I have never worked with anyone name Mark. I tell her this and say goodnight. I am polite. But I have real regulars (with and without coupons) to worry about.