Dining out might be a routine event for some, but for others, going out to eat is a rare treat. No matter how often you find yourself in a restaurant, deals and coupons are an enticing way to try something new or save big on one of your favorites. While these come-ons might look great at first glance, many come with so many strings attached that they may seem like a raw deal by the time you get your check.
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. Even so, the trade organization projects record food-service sales in 2016 as consumers dine out more often.
Before falling for a restaurant deal, it’s important to consider how much you get for what you pay. Read the fine print and ask questions.
Here’s a taste of 7 gimmicks, accompanied by some advice to chew on.
1 of 8
The Bankrate Daily
The mixed plate of Restaurant Week
2 of 8
Zuzana Gajdosikova/EyeEm/Getty Images
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. 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.
2 of 8
Daily deal offers heaping with catches
3 of 8
Hero Images/Getty Images
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.
The gimmick: A few years ago, 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. Instead, it offered only half off a 2nd entree when you bought the first one.
Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org and a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general in consumer protection, 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 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.
4 of 8
5 of 8
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images
The gimmick: A restaurant chain might offer customers of a certain age or who are members of a certain affinity group 20% 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.
5 of 8
Holiday meals and daily specials
6 of 8
Michael H/Getty Images
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, former reporter for the Chicago Tribune’s Spending Smart column. 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.
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%; wine, 200%, DeNinno says. Beer is even more, depending on whether it’s bottled or on tap. A bottled beer could be marked up 400% while a draft might be 600%.
And the cheaper the wine, the greater the profit compared with 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: Some restaurants allow you to bring your own bottle, 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.
7 of 8
Beware the vanishing gift card
8 of 8
Geri Lavrov/Getty Images
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 5 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.