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Gifter beware: With restaurant gift certificates it may be only the thought that counts

Written By Scott Joseph On November 24, 2009

It’s time for my annual column warning about the risks of giving gift certificates and gift cards for restaurants as,gift card well, gifts during the holiday season (or anytime during the year for that matter, but this is holiday themed, so let’s stay with that).

Gift cards and certificates are enormously popular for the people who give them and the businesses that sell them. For the giver, nothing quite says “I wanted to give you something but didn’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about it” quite like a plastic card you can buy on a whim as you’re paying the check after a meal at a restaurant. And for the sellers it’s a chance to get a pile of cash up front for services to be rendered later.

And for some restaurants, especially at this time of year (see reference to holiday theme above), it’s an opportunity for an infusion of cash to delay shutting down the business.

Problem is, some of them will close anyway, and those gift certificates may be worthless. When I wrote about this last year the situation with many restaurants was dire. Now, after another year of a down economy, the situation is dire-er. The restaurant business is tough in good times, it’s tougher in bad. Although by most accounts the recession is over, the repercussions will ripple on for the foreseeable future. More restaurants are doomed to close.

And don’t think it’s just the obscure neighborhood restaurants that fail. Remember Bennigan’s? Remember Harvey’s Bistro and Manuel’s on the 28th? And it doesn’t even have to be a restaurant that closes entirely. Texas Roadhouse, a family-style steakhouse chain, is still in business, but it closed its location at Hunter’s Creek. A trip to Ocoee or Melbourne is an option for people in South Orlando holding gift cards for that restaurant. And let’s face it, Texas Roadhouse isn’t exactly destination dining.

So what’s my advice for those who want to give the gift of restaurants? Those of you who have been reading me for a while can sing along:

•    Give something else.
•    Give a certificate to a national chain with multiple brands. It’s common practice that if, say, Olive Garden were to go out of business (proving the existence of a deity once and for all, but don’t get me started) the company would honor Olive Garden-specific certificates at Red Lobster (throwing the question of a higher being once again into doubt).
•    Consider giving a bankcard certificate instead. Even less romantic than a restaurant gift certificate — and often with higher fees and more restrictions — a Visa or American Express card is safer (though these days nothing is guaranteed). And the card can be used at any restaurant that accepts credit cards.
•    Instead of giving a gift certificate to a restaurant, give a greeting card and write inside it, “This card entitles bearer to join us for an evening of fine food and good conversation at X restaurant at a time and date to be mutually agreed upon.” Be sure to replace the X with the name of a restaurant that you know the person will enjoy and you can afford. And if X restaurant is X’d out before you can go, you can just substitute another.

We hope you find our reviews and news articles useful and entertaining. It has always been our goal to assist you in making informed decisions when spending your dining dollars. If we’ve helped you in any way, please consider making a contribution to help us continue our journalism. Thank you.

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