I admit it. I procrastinated on using one of my Groupons. In my defense, I deliberately waited to revisit LM Restaurant, 4539 N. Lincoln Ave. so that I could celebrate the holidays by not cooking dinner, and I planned on using my coupon right before its expiration date (December 21). My mistake was waiting until one week before it expired to call for a reservation.
“We have absolutely nothing available,” was the polite but firm response I received when I called the French bistro, and my heart sank. I thought I was getting such a great deal last June when I originally bought the $25 Groupon, which was good for $55 towards a meal at one of my favorite Lincoln Square restaurants. But now the outlook was bleak.
But LM restaurant is going beyond what’s required by law and offering a discount of $35 to Groupon holders if they make a reservation on or before Jan. 12, 2011. This extension of the coupon is not surprising given the restaurant’s history of pleasing customers.
“In the end, it’s all about the customer,” Co-owner Stephan Outrequin Quaisser said. “We are here to make sure they enjoy their experience at the restaurant, so we will do whatever it takes to rise above the occasion.”
In case you haven’t heard of the phenomenon, Groupon is a swiftly growing online deals broker that started in Chicago in 2008, and now is located in over 35 countries. Its subscribers receive daily emails for deep discounts at local restaurants, stores and services.
A minimum number of coupons need to be purchased in order for the deals to be activated, and the typical expiration date is 6 months. In Chicago, restaurants are the largest segment of Groupon businesses.
Most subscribers seem to love the service (some people even seem to schedule their lives now around their Groupons) but business owners aren’t always enamored with the results. Some restaurants are swamped with Grouponians on day one while others never see a profit, and some experience a back-lash during this age of social media when customers’ expectations aren’t immediately met.
Quaisser was expecting to sell around 1,500 Groupons, and was pleasantly surprised in the end when over 2,700 were sold. Business had gone relatively smoothly and the restaurant welcomed many new customers, thanks to the Groupon deal. Quaisser seemed unfazed by the recent reservation commotion saying, “anything that brings more people to the restaurant is a good thing.”
Some restaurants are inundated during the week before their Groupon deal expires, which was the case at LM. For businesses with limited capacity, such as a restaurant that only serves 20-30 covers per night, a Groupon deal can be a risky venture.
I was somehow able to secure a 6 p.m. reservation on the 21st after trying my luck on the on the OpenTable.com reservation website. When we arrived at the restaurant I expected to see an angry yet well-dressed mob outside clamoring to get in, and to hear the phone ringing off the hook. But instead, it was like any other night.
Pleasant and professional staff buzzed around the cozy space making recommendations and pouring wine. The kitchen was quietly focused on sending out crispy sweetbreads and sizzling plates of cassoulet. Relaxed patrons showed up at their appointed times and no one tried to finagle a last-minute reservation.
But the calm atmosphere that night concealed a hectic week, according to our server. Apparently 700 other people also waited until December to use their Groupons, and several would-be customers were not happy when they heard the restaurant was booked up through the expiration date.
Last spring, a former user filed a class-action lawsuit in Illinois against Groupon for imposing “post-contractual terms on the consumer containing illegal expiration dates.” Groupon responded by filing its own suit against itself, touting its open return policy, and clarifying that customers can still redeem Groupons for the price they originally paid during the period of time defined by state law (which is five years in Illinois). Both lawsuits have since been dismissed.
Despite the last-minute rush, Quaisser said he was pleased with the outcome of his first Groupon venture.
“It’s nice to make money, of course, but our goal was to create more traffic to the restaurant, and obviously it worked.” LM is now negotiating with Groupon on a future deal.