"Retail is for suckers."
- Cosmo Kramer, "Seinfeld"
THE NEXT TIME you go out to dinner, why not eat more, for less?
Thanks to a proliferation of group-buying Web sites such as Restaurant.com, Groupon and LivingSocial, dining out in many of the region's most popular restaurants comes with a side of deep discount.
If you haven't tried one of these sites, you're probably thinking, OK, what's the catch? Usually if something seems too good to be true, it is.
Not this time.
Tapping into multiple zeitgeists, from social-media use to foodie fever, these bargains give us the ultimate means to justify our hunger for dining out. And they're changing the fundamental way many of us spend our precious entertainment dollar.
Although she's not much of an online shopper, Laura Cohn is all about Restaurant.com. "We're on the austerity plan these days, but we love to go out for dinner," said the Belmont Hills batik artist. She heard of the site last year from a friend but didn't buy until a few months ago.
Restaurant.com typically offers $25 gift certificates for $10, but special promotions can deliver that same $25 discount for $4. "I just bought four the other day," said Cohn. Her approach is to buy by neighborhood, a place she knows and likes, or one her family wants to try.
Recent buys were to La Collina and Derek's, both within walking distance; Saffron, a good Indian restaurant in Bala Cynwyd; and Serrano, an old friend with creative vegetarian options for her husband Bill. In each case, the restaurant sets specific criteria for redemption, usually asking for a minimum purchase.
"We can't use the Serrano one on a Saturday, so we're celebrating our anniversary on Friday night. No big deal," she said.
Cohn, who did plenty of waitressing in her college years, likes that the certificate clearly states that the tip is based on the prediscounted check amount. "And I've never felt like a second-class citizen when I've redeemed one," she said. "It's the same as cash."
A win-win situation
Derek Davis has been working with Restaurant.com for about five years. From an owner's point of view, he sees using the site to promote his Manayunk restaurant as a win-win.
"We don't accept them on weekends, and they have to spend at least $35 on food to use the certificate. It brings people in when we typically have empty seats," he said. "Restaurant.com does all the advertising. I don't owe them anything, they don't pay me anything. That $25 in food costs me about $8 or $9."
Restaurant.com provides trackable metrics for restaurant owners that let them see who their customers are and measure their buying habits. Davis knows that his average Restaurant.com customer brings in 2.3 people and spends about $85 - sales he may not have seen otherwise.
A flurry of new sites have entered the market in recent months, most following a slightly different paradigm. Sites such as LivingSocial, Groupon and Buywithme harness group buying power to offer limited-time deals on dining, as well as "lifestyle" services from spa and massage to car detailing and fitness classes.
For a deal to work, a set number of buyers (specified by the service provider) have to purchase. For example, a recent Groupon deal offered $75 worth of organic food, home delivered for $35, a discount of 53 percent. At 5:27 p.m. that day, more than the minimum had purchased, indicated by a snappy little "Deal is on" message.
An hourglass and countdown of time left to purchase added a sense of urgency to the transaction.
Davis is test-driving LivingSocial in early July. Unlike restaurant.com, that site kicks back 30 percent of the deal's face value to the restaurant. "So now, I'm recovering my food costs," he said. "And instead of being good for a year, like Restaurant.com, this will expire in November. So I'll get people in faster."
Davis expects to sell 500 deals on the day they're offered. He tried one out himself recently, paying $10 for $20 worth of food at Elevation Burger in Wynnewood. "It was a good deal. What's not to like?"
Chris Mullins, whose family owns Philly's oldest continuously operating tavern, McGillin's Olde Ale House, has seen a spike in lunch business since working with Restaurant.com. "Our deal is $10 off, and you have to spend $20 in food. That certificate may have cost them $2. And chances are, they're going to bring friends in and have a few beers. I don't see a downside."
James Zeleniak, who with his wife, Alicia, founded Punch Media four years ago, handles advertising for a range of restaurant clients. And while he doesn't see programs such as Restaurant.com as a substitute for print advertising, he likes them a lot.
"I'm always skeptical, especially with my clients' money," he said. "But Restaurant.com does a ton of promotion for the restaurant. And they do a lot of tracking for them on the back end. For folks trying to drive bodies into their businesses, I think it's a great vehicle."
His client Rum Bar in Philly was one of the first to get on the Restaurant.com bandwagon. And owner Adam Kanter has also gotten good results with LivingSocial, selling 200 tickets to a special rum-tasting event in one day. "Once you know about them, it's kind of like, why would anybody want to pay full price?" said Kanter. "It works for everybody."
Coupons are cool
What's interesting about the recent spate of online dining discounters is the element of hipness that goes along with using them. The days of being considered a nerdy coupon clipper are over. Thanks to the whiz-bang of the Internet, penny-pinching is downright cool.
Since most of these sites are in multiple cities - Restaurant.com has more than 15,000 restaurants signed on throughout the United States - you can also take that savings on the road, eating for less while on vacation.
Kim Genkin is a twentysomething downtown resident and a big fan of discount sites. She and her fiancé frequent L2 on South Street, where their $25 off Restaurant.com deal gives them two filet mignons for the price of one. "I think they're great for getting you to try a new place - and if you like it, you may become a regular customer."
More people are using their Facebook and Twitter accounts to broadcast a particularly great deal, a virtual shill that can have its rewards.
South Philly native Franky Carrozza earned $60 in bonus bucks from Groupon, which gives rewards every time somebody else buys at your suggestion. "I told my sisters about a great deal, they bought it, and I got mine for free," said Carrozza, who now lives in Belmont Hills. "Groupon is phenomenal."
Always a bargain hunger, Carrozza finds adding "discount code" to an online search can deliver deals that may have been off her radar. Although she admits that the lure of a great deal can be hard to resist, Carrozza only buys something she would have bought anyway, from the gift of a massage for her mom on Mother's Day to the Elevation Burger deal, well-suited to her family of four. "I would have spend $150 on my mom, but instead I spent $75. It's cool."
She also sends gift certificates as thank yous, a small investment that translates to a great experience for a friend.
"You don't feel like a weirdo clipping coupons and keeping them in a special pouch," she said. "It's fun."
While some restaurants would rather close their doors than discount, there's a surprising range of cuisine and price points in the half-off mix. From new places such as MidAtlantic in University City and Swift Half Pub in the Piazza in Northern Liberties, to favorites such as La Famiglia on Front Street and the busy hotel pub 13 in the Marriott Downtown, discounts come in all flavors.
As online discount dining continues to heat up, expect more sites to launch and more e-mail to crowd your in-box. Good news - there's even an antidote for the onset of discount fatigue. Dealradar, which launched locally in May, is a clearinghouse site that monitors all the existing deals and delivers the best of them in just one daily update.