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Deal or No Deal?

Restaurant.com reinvents savings for dining out.

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I love to eat out, but with times being tight, I've had to come up with new ways to justify my fancy-food habit. A friend sent me a coupon for 80 percent off at restaurant.com, the Chicago-based company that provides "rich savings" at restaurants all over the country. With more than 80 restaurants participating locally, I decided to load up on coupons to a few of my favorite places as well as a couple of new restaurants I've wanted to try. After purchasing $250 worth of coupons for $11, I felt pretty good about eating out again.

"We help diners enjoy great meals out for less by providing at least 50 percent savings on all restaurant gift certificates," says Jeff Conlin, vice president of public relations and corporate communications for restaurant.com. "Our other goal is to help restaurants fill empty tables."

Participating restaurants do not receive any portion of the coupon sales. Instead, restaurant.com offers them online exposure with a micro-website as well as detailed information gleaned from customer survey results. (Each diner is asked to fill out a survey via e-mail after redeeming a coupon.)

There used to be a two-week delay while the coupons were processed and mailed out, but the site has been updated so I got a link to my coupons right away. As I printed them out, I noticed the "Top 3 Ways to Use Your Certificate," which included: "1. Ordering Dessert, 2. Trying an Appetizer, and 3. Going for the Grand Entrée." (I found that these suggestions took hold of my subconscious, because rather than being thrifty when I went out, I probably spent more than I would have without the coupon. Oops!)

Trisha Gurley has patronized restaurant.com numerous times and says she mainly uses it for Sekisui coupons. "My husband and I are sushi fiends, but our budget doesn't let us indulge as much as we'd like," she says.

Paige Walkup also is a big fan of restaurant.com and uses it when she travels. "Whenever I go to a conference, I check if there are any local restaurants on the site. I usually cross-reference recommendations from chowhound.com and roadfood.com to see if it it's somewhere I might want to explore," Walkup says.

Because coupons are typically offered at 50 to 80 percent of their face value (i.e, a $25 coupon can be purchased for as little as $3), there are "rules of use" which vary by restaurant.

"Restaurants are allowed a lot freedom to adjust the rules of use. Some restaurants do not accept certificates on Fridays and Saturdays. Restaurants also have different minimum food-purchase requirements," explains David Lindsey, director of marketing for Sekisui, Inc. (Sekisui, Bluefin, Sekisui Pacific Rim, and Dish all accept coupons from restaurant.com.) "For example, in our restaurants, you have to buy $35 in food to redeem a $25 certificate. But in some restaurants, you have to buy $45 in food to redeem a $25 certificate," Lindsey says.

It is very important for customers to read the rules of use before they purchase the certificates.

"One problem we see is when people receive these certificates as gifts," Lindsey says. "Even though the rules are printed on the certificate, they don't take the time to read them, so when the bill is presented, they are shocked to see an 18 percent gratuity included or that they didn't meet the minimum requirements."

Restaurants are asked to commit to one year when they sign up with the coupon service, but they can remove themselves from the service at any time. Michelle Long says she went to a popular local Mexican restaurant recently and discovered a coupon posted on the door with a sign that read, "We no longer accept these."

"The economy is bad, and I wanted my $3 back," Long says, laughing.

Restaurant.com does credit customers in the event that a restaurant stops participating. Conlin cites the economic downturn as a reason for struggling restaurants to pull out of the promotion. "The most successful restaurants take advantage of our reporting tools," he adds.

Some customers have complained about a third-party offer that is linked to the purchase site.

"A friend of mine found a charge for $14.95 for Shopping Essentials after she bought several certificates," Gurley says. "Apparently, if you blindly click along while purchasing, you can inadvertently be signed up for this site and be charged monthly. This has not happened to me."

Conlin says that no one likes to be told they didn't read the fine print. "Nine times out of 10, that's what it is," he says.

Ultimately, it's about building a mutually beneficial relationship between the site, the restaurant, and the consumer.

"Restaurant.com is probably the most successful promotional program Sekisui is involved with," Lindsey says. "Our philosophy is: A chair with a customer getting a discount is better than an empty chair."

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