deal: or no deal?

Last week I wrote about the recent Living Social deal offering a $20 Amazon.com gift code for $10. It was wildly successful and their first time dealing with such a large merchant, making the deal much more widely accessible and less local. Tons–over a million–of people bought the deal and have been able to redeem it without too much fuss. Generally, what I’ve heard of people’s experiences with Living Social has been positive. Some merchants ask that you let them know ahead of time that you’ll be using a voucher, but most restaurants handle it just as they would any other gift card/certificate or coupon. So long as you follow the rules, you turn it in with the check and pay the remainder–hopefully tipping on the entire bill, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Last night, at my suggestion, I went out with co-workers to Cedar in Penn Quarter. I’ve been there a few times and while their dinner menu can be daunting for some, I was focused on their happy hour and bar menu since we were there to have a few drinks and a few bites. I had a $60 Living Social voucher to spend and with the cocktail prices at most DC establishments, spending that much at the bar alone isn’t all that difficult. Still, they have some really good “bar bites” which I thought would sustain a few drinks–all most of us really had time for.

When we came in, even though they were fully booked for the evening, the host assured us that their full menu was offered at the bar, which suited us fine. My co-workers were poring over the menu options and we decided to stick to the bar menu which contained their bar bites and a burger option. We did arrive a little too early for their kitchen, so we sipped and patiently waited until 5:30 before asking the bartender about food. It was at this point that we were informed–without any warning, mind you–that due to “the Living Social deal about to expire” they were only offering the dinner menu for the bar and dining room.

Admittedly, I was right there with my voucher as were many of the patrons in the dining room that I overheard. But this is the first time I have ever had a restaurant change their offerings–without notice–because they were honoring a Living Social voucher/coupon. Many of the Living Social deals have restrictions and “fine print”, most of which are easy for the customers to follow, but there was no mention that certain menu options weren’t eligible or wouldn’t be offered just because it was the last few days of the deal. So instead of using the voucher (plus whatever else we might have paid for) on $5-14 cocktails and $12-20 bar menu options, each of us ordered a $25 entrée (on average). Not that they weren’t delicious–Cedar does good food–but they weren’t what we were in the mood for. For the most part, it was disappointing, a word that one doesn’t ever want to apply to a dining experience.

On the one hand, you could say it was a tiny bit of bait & switch, while on the other you could tell me to stop whining about the drinks and meal we got at $30 off. Fair enough on both points. Had we been told about the situation ahead of time, we might have made other plans. There are plenty of places around Penn Quarter/Gallery Place to go for Happy Hour. But we didn’t know about it until after we’d already had a few drinks and had our eye on some menu items. Often, I’ll read stories about diners having bad experiences, or not getting what they wanted from the kitchen and the diners don’t send the food back nor do they end the meal and leave. Why would they? By that point, they’re comfy and hungry. It’d be a hassle to get up and go someplace else that–by that time–may be just as busy. Most restaurants wouldn’t let their customers sit for over an hour with one menu, only to swap it out at the last minute to say, “Sorry, that entire menu isn’t available, use this one instead.”

It also brought into question whether sites like Living Social, Groupon or the tons of imitators that pop up every day are really good for business or not. Obviously it brings a lot of new traffic in for establishments, but whether those customers become return customers is the gamble. Additionally, it may slam a business that wasn’t expecting so much business. Living Social sold nearly 1,700 of the Cedar deals back in July, so that’s a lot of new people coming through in the past 6 months. The vouchers weren’t eligible during Restaurant Week (Jan 17-23) meaning that many people found themselves with vouchers about to expire. I don’t blame the restaurant for examining the business patterns of the last few months, how the Living Social deal made an impact and making changes based on that… so long as they let people know what’s what before dining.

This won’t stop me from going back to Cedar or buying Living Social deals, but I might be more wary about restaurants–at the least–changing up their usual fare just because they’ve allowed potential diners to buy vouchers through a daily deal site. šŸ˜•

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3 Responses

  1. Gilahi says:

    Huh. We had a comparable experience last weekend. We had reservations at BlackSalt, hoping to take advantage of Restaurant Week pricing. The Restaurant Week website only showed a lunch menu for BlackSalt, so I called the restaurant and asked specifically if they were participating in Restaurant Week for dinner as well as lunch. I was assured that they were.

    You can see this coming, can’t you? We got there and were handed standard menus. We asked about Restaurant Week. We were told that they were only doing that for lunch. We explained that the only reason we were there was because we had been assured otherwise. A manager was summoned. An apology was made, but there was no offer to reduce any price, comp a round of drinks, nothing.

    We ended up staying and paying about 3 times the anticipated Restaurant Week prices. The food was OK but not worth the price, and the management attitude after their staff screwed up was enough to keep me from ever going back.

    • urb says:

      I could easily say “don’t get me started” on Restaurant Week. Much as I enjoy taking advantage of it, it gets me so anxious about visiting places since–as you noticed–restaurants change their plans on a whim. Or as you also noticed, no one has a clue what’s going on.

      As someone that loves to cook, I’m hearing a lot of “food was good, but expensive” from various places. Our meal at Cedar was good, but for the same price, I could have had my co-workers over to my place and made the same dishes for much less. Sorry to hear that BlackSalt wasn’t more accommodating.

  2. Tracy Albert says:

    This kind of treatment is penny wise and pound foolish. I am one of those people who will not kick up a fuss at the restaurant, but I will destroy them in conversations to my friends, and often on facebook. I bet they lost a lot of the benefit they might have gained from the Living Social deal.

    OK, so you get a lot more response than you planned for, or you get a little overwhelmed. You adjust, you suck it up, and you make your NEW customers happy, so they come back. As opposed to inviting in an audience of new customers, ticking them off, and ensuring that they don’t come back.

    Not saying restaurants should roll over and give every customer what they want; a lot of jerks make a good living by complaining. But, it costs the restaurant practically nothing to comp a round of drinks, and it leaves a very nice, tipsy afterglow of feeling well-kept.

    The occasional free drink, dessert, or $5 gift card has turned many of my experiences from “I hate that place” to “Wow, they treat their customers really well”. The $5 gift card (Chili’s) was especially brilliant, because it made me feel like I got something for free, and ensured that I would come back and spend $50! Joke’s on me, I guess.

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