9-Feb-15 Imagine being the owner of a restaurant, perhaps operating on a thin profit margin, and customers start bringing in coupons you have never seen before, entitling them to discounts.
It is a frustration restaurateurs continue to face all because they got a call one day from Restaurant.com, a Chicago company that sells gift certificates for restaurants in cities throughout the United States. On its website, a buyer can select from 18,000 restaurants, select the dollar amount of the gift certificate, pay for it, and print the certificate. The company then gets a cut from each certificate sold. As recently as 2008, RDC had annual revenues in the range of several million dollars, according to a United States District Court document.
Owned by two River North residents, Kenneth Chessick and Ellen Chessick, Restaurant.com is into its fifth year of a class action lawsuit filed by two New Jersey residents who, while not losing any money, are holding the Arlington Heights company to the letter of New Jersey law. The New Jersey Supreme Court has determined that gift certificates the residents purchased from RDC had expiration dates and a disclaimer in violation of state law. A federal appellate court is now deciding if RDC is subject to an estimated $1 million in penalties.
Many of the consumer complaints against RDC, however, are not from people who bought their certificates but from restaurants signed up without their consent and feel obligated to give discounts to customers who bring in the coupons.
|The latest are two restaurants in Great Falls, Montana. The owners of Dimitris Restaurant and Prime Cut Restaurant (right) say they were surprised when customers showed up with coupons from Restaurant.com, appearing to entitle them to sizable discounts, as much as 50 percent off. While they scrambled to contact RDC to get removed from the program, both restaurants decided to honor some of the certificates.
Jody Mintsiveris, co-owner of Dimitris, told the Great Falls Tribune in January that when she started getting sales calls from RDC, the first sales representative was misleading and provided incomplete information and the rest wouldnt take no for an answer, arguing with them over the value of the marketing program.
Prime Cut owner John Altringer told the newspaper that RDC didnt treat us fairly. He says RDC claims a night supervisor had approved the agreement but the supervisor denies that.
Restaurant.com disputes the claims, the companys director of marketing communications telling Great Falls Tribune that RDC did have agreements with both restaurants.
||We have over 18,000 restaurants around the country in our marketing program and are not in the business of putting restaurants in the program that dont want to be there, said Tania German (left). We deal with a lot of restaurants and everybody is not 100 percent happy. The restaurants are in the business of making money and sometimes they change their minds about participating.
RDC nonetheless removed the restaurants from the marketing program.
Reached on Monday, a co-owner of Prime Cut confirmed to Loop North News they have been taken off the Restaurant.com website. We will be monitoring it to make sure we dont reappear, said the restaurant in an email, calling RDC a very shady operation.
Better Business Bureau has mixed success with resolving complaints
The Better Business Bureau currently gives Restaurant.com a B+ rating but says RDC has failed to resolve underlying cause(s) of a pattern of complaints.
255 complaints have been filed with the BBB against Restaurant.com in the past three years. They include claims of RDC refusing to provide refunds for coupons not honored by a restaurant.
Restaurant owners have also alleged that the companys sales staff has misrepresented the frequency of discounts offered by Restaurant.com and that the company has sold coupons for higher amounts than they had agreed upon with the companys sales staff, reads the review for RDC on the BBB website.
On May 19, 2014, Restaurant.com provided the BBB with a plan to deal with complaints. The plan included adding a link on its website to allow customers to exchange a coupon purchased for one restaurant with that of another restaurant.
To address complaints of misrepresentations to restaurant owners, RDC said it has updated their program to give restaurant owners more control over the minimum value spent for each coupon. They are also allowing restaurant owners to terminate their agreement with the company effective immediately if they no longer wish to participate.
But resolving complaints from restaurant owners who were signed up without their knowledge or consent has been more challenging. To date, the BBB has received no plan of action detailing any progressive steps by the company to resolve the allegations.
|(Right) Kenneth (at podium) and Ellen Chessick on October 26, 2013, at the official unveiling of the Kenneth and Ellen Chessick Practice Center at Northern Illinois University. Photo obtained from Northern Illinois University.
Dr. Kenneth Chessick, a lawyer in Chicago, and his wife, Ellen Chessick, who is president of Marina Towers Condominium Association, own Restaurant.com. Ellen Chessick told Loop North News on September 12, 2013, that the number of complaints against her company is a miniscule fraction of the total transactions.
No business wants an unhappy customer and Restaurant.com has a large award-winning customer service department that works hard to address customers concerns, said Chessick. Anyone who owns a business knows that sometimes no matter what you do, you will not be able to make some people happy.
Restaurant.com did not respond on Monday to a request for details on the award won by its customer service department.