Watch Out For Financial Indigestion from These Restaurant Scams

It wasn’t that long ago that our inboxes were being flooded with emails announcing deals like: “$20 Off at This Local Restaurant” or $35 for $50 at That Local Restaurant.”

No matter the headline the deal was always phenomenal. Or was it?

Group buying websites like Groupon and Living Social have backed way off for now on selling deals to restaurants. They can still be found, just a lot less often.

Why? Well it was discovered that a lot of these so called “deals” they were presenting were not exactly what they seemed.

When the economy hit the skids one of the first luxuries American families cut was their dining out budget. In the years since, restaurants across the nation have been trying every gimmick known to man to entice diners to spend what little dollars they have at their location. It’s led to some shady marketing and misleading offers.

Here are six restaurant deals that are hard to swallow.

I’ve fallen for this gimmick. I bought a deal online that gave me $100 to spend at a swanky downtown restaurant. My husband and I had a great time ordering multiple appetizers, pricey entrees and two desserts, but try as we might we couldn’t eat $100 worth of food.

That’s exactly what restaurants hope for! They sell you coupons for more food than you can possibly eat in one sitting. The coupon is only good for a one time use and excludes alcoholic beverages so you can only use it to buy meals.

The restaurant ends up getting paid twice on this kind of deal. First when you buy the coupon for the food. And second on whatever amount is left over that you didn’t spend.

Watch out for restaurant deals that offer you high dollar amounts worth of food ($100 +), even if they are for restaurants you know are expensive. Most times you can’t eat that much food in one sitting. The only time it makes sense to go for this deal is when you dine with a group of three or more people.

Have a friend with an upcoming birthday? Then this deal might work for your group.

My husband and I didn’t think of it at the time, but we should have ordered another entrée and asked for it to go to make sure we spent our full $100. That way the deal would have been good for us two ways: we would have spent the coupons full amount as well as stretched our meals out to the next day. If you ever run into this deal and can’t eat that much food, order an entrée or two to go and stretch your meals into multiple meal times.

Also watch out for deals that offer so-called bargains on meals. You’ll see advertisements exclaiming, “Get Two Steak Entrees That Are Valued At $65 for Just $40!” Seems like a great deal, right? Not so fast. The ad is misleading at best and most likely they are outright lying to patrons.

When restaurants employ this trick they are essentially getting the customer to pay full price for the meal. They make the customer feel like they are getting a deal by raising the perceived value. You probably could get those two steak entrees for $35 without the deal.

When a deal like this appears in your inbox, check out the restaurant’s menu online. If it doesn’t include prices call up the restaurant and ask the average bill for two entrees. If it’s close to the amount of the deal you were emailed you’ll know you’re being bought. If you want to dine at this restaurant, you won’t need a deal with an expiration date to do so. Dine there when it’s convenient for you, not the other way around.

Speaking of deals that are emailed to you…have you ever noticed their salacious subject lines? Restaurants are taking their cues from gossip magazines and putting enticing headlines on their emails.  These businesses know that it’s not a given you will open their emails so they put misleading subject lines to get you to click.  They might promise a free entrée or a two for one deal, but when you open the email those deals are not the ones being offered. This practice is shady at best and more often than not an illegal practice.

If you run into a business that does a bait and switch on you, you want to steer clear of them. Who knows, they may pull the same kind of switch on you when you order at their restaurant!

It’s important when deciding whether or not to buy a restaurant deal from one of these group-buying websites that you read the fine print. A lot of complaints have been logged recently by patrons who get stiffed.

My mom bought one such deal for a local restaurant and when she called to make reservations not just a week after her purchase she was told by the receptionist that they were no longer accepting certificates that had been issued. They had been inundated in the past week and closed down the deal. This left my mom to scramble to get her money back which took her several phone calls over the course of a week, not to mention the time and stress it caused her.

Restaurants hold all the power in these situations. Even though they sold you a coupon, does not mean they will honor it. They reserve the right to close down the deal at any time, leaving patrons to work for a refund or credit, neither of which you wanted.

Before you buy, check out how many deals have been sold. If the number is in the several hundred arena or above a thousand you may want to call the restaurant and check if they will honor all of the deals. You don’t want to be the one left holding the bag.

The fine print will also carefully hide any restrictions of the deal. Make note of the expiration date, what foods and beverages are excluded from the deal, if tax and tip are extra, if there is a minimum purchase amount, etc. Make sure you are ok with all of the restrictions before you decide to buy.

Even after you buy and get to the restaurant there are opportunities for restaurants to scam you out of more money. Watch out for the “special of the day” the waiter tells you about when you first sit down. Many times the “special” is one of the highest priced items they are selling that night. If a waiter doesn’t say the price after describing the dish, he’s most likely hoping you’ll be too embarrassed to ask. It’s only when the bill comes you realize you ordered the most expensive item on the menu. Instead of letting embarrassment lead you to spend more than you wanted to, call the restaurant the day you plan to go and ask what the specials are as well as their price.

Aside from your entrees be mindful of what you order to drink. Restaurants operate on very thin margins, except in one area: beverages. They typically mark-up beer, wine, alcohol and even soda by over 100 percent or more.  Ordering any of these beverages can drive your bill up quite substantially. Instead have a few drinks at home before you go (as long as you still have a designated driver). Or you can bring your own wine and pay the much smaller “corkage fee.”

Stick to water to keep your bill at a reasonable level.

It’s never a good idea to use the promise of a deal as an excuse to try a particular restaurant. These so called deals are meant to get you to spend money, not save money. Instead of getting screwed by restaurants and their shady marketing practices aimed to get you to spend the maximum amount try these tricks to save yourself from overspending.

It’s never a good idea to go to a restaurant when you are starving. Sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s not. When all you can think about is food, you tend to ignore everything else, including how much you can eat. A lot of times this will cause you to order too much food. The more food you order, the higher your bill will be. Instead eat a light snack at home to take the edge off your hunger.

You can also cut down your food bill by ordering a menu item that takes a long time to eat. The longer it takes to eat a dish, the less you’ll need to order. Some dishes like pasta and soup can be eaten very quickly, leading you to order more food. Only when you sit back for a few minutes do you realize that you are full and don’t need anything else. Try ordering fondue or a dish that requires some construction like a cheese and cracker plate.

Whenever my husband and I go to a particular Italian restaurant we share a dish instead of ordering two entrees. The portions are so big at this restaurant that one dish is plenty of food for both of us. It saves us money, even though there is a sharing charge included on the bill.

If you find yourself at a restaurant that offers large portions and you don’t want to share, plan to take part of the meal home. This will allow you to stretch your restaurant dollars over several meals. You save money by spreading the cost out, not to mention saving yourself time from having to cook the next meal!

Many of these same money-saving tips at restaurants will also help you save from expanding your waistline. Restaurant portions are much larger than what we make at home.  These methods will keep your calories in check as well as your budget.

Enjoy!

Nancy Patterson

     
     
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