Sunday, July 17, 2011

No More Group Deals on Food/Drinks

Within the last year or so, I've probably spent a few hundred dollars on various deals from Groupon, Living Social and Travelzoo in categories as varied as movie tickets, swim classes and Zipcar. Although technically I've saved hundreds of dollars by using these coupons, I would not have made most of these purchases in the first place because they are all pretty frivolous, the prime example being that speed reading class where I discovered that the 25% increase in reading speed led to a corresponding 25% decrease in retention and comprehension, plus all that finger wagging across the page just looked silly.  However, I don't regret any of the purchases, especially the 2 for 1 AMC or Fandango movie ticket deals, which I LOVE!

The lone exception being the food/drinks deals, which have all been infuriating.

My first food/drink deal came by this past January, via a Travelzoo coupon for the then newly opened W Hotel by the World Trade Center: 4 drinks + 3 appetizers for $39, a $108 value supposedly. Taxes and gratuities are not included of course. Because I've always had great drinks at the W, this location is within walking distance of my apartment, and the coupons didn't expire until mid July, I thought it would be a no-brainer. It seemed like such a good deal I bought two. I went in the following Friday night with some family and the coupon. There was predictably a fairly large crowd of people who all came because of the deal, so it took a good while before we were seated. After waiting another 15 to 20 minutes, a waitress finally came over to hand us the special Travelzoo menu, which had a choice of 3 decent cocktails and maybe 4 less-than-appetizing appetizers, if I remember correctly, in contrast to the normal menu, which had at least 20 more drinks and 10 more appetizer choices. The cocktails were definitely up to W standards, but the appetizers were pretty small and substandard. I think we ordered some bedeviled eggs and fries, which weren't enough so we ordered more food and drinks from the regular menu. I think at one point, I waited a good 30 minutes for my next drink. At the end of the night, we got the bill. Basically, they charged each drink/food order according to the price on the regular menu plus taxes and an automatic 18% tip and then applied a $108 credit toward the total amount, so I ended up paying about $80 total, including the coupon. While I got a pretty good deal, it was not a pleasant experience overall because of the terrible service and the crappy out-of-the way location. The much ballyhooed outdoor skating rink on the fifth floor outside of the bar was not much larger than my parents' porch! I guess part of the reason we got really bad service is because they knew they would be charging us a mandatory tip (which was NOT mentioned in the coupon fine print at all). I regretted getting the 2nd coupon by that point.

Goal: get good deal while trying out a new place.
Outcome: good drinks and so so food at a discount, a galling 18% tip considering the horrible service rendered

Fast forward 5 months. I got in on that big Living Social NYC lunch promotion where I paid $1 for a $20 credit towards food at some crappy bar/restaurant in Hells Kitchen called Latitude. It's your run of the mill, mediocre, faux trendy Manhattan bar/lounge/restaurant that most people who actually work and live in the city would walk past without even bothering to peek inside because it's so damn generic looking. I don't know why it's even open for lunch because it usually looks deserted and no one I know had ever eaten there before. Maybe once in a while it catches a few stray tourists who wandered out of Times Square? Anyways, I persuaded a couple of coworkers to come with me because of the deal, figuring that we would each get about $7 off our orders (since we could only use 1 coupon per table) and try out a new place too. We got there at around 12:30. Of course there was a fucking line out the door because everyone else got in on the deal too. We waited 10 minutes before even seeing the hostess, who told us we could wait for a table (no estimate on the wait time) or just get our food to go. Because the place was packed already with people who just sat down at their tables, we figured getting the food to go would be faster, so we waited another 10 minutes in line before finally getting the "special" Living Social menu, which had maybe 5 or 6 choices, costing about $12 to $15 each, as opposed to the regular menu which actually had more appetizing choices at cheaper prices. I ended up ordering some $14 steak tacos while my coworkers ordered a chicken wrap and a tuna salad wrap (or some shit like that). We proceeded to wait and wait and wait for our food while watching people who were originally behind us in line sit down at their tables, put their orders in, and then dig into their food. I felt a little sorry for the waitress, who looked like she was totally slammed and apologized for our wait a couple of times. Then she completely avoided looking in our direction until she finally got us our food.  Wait time for food: 50 minutes. This doe not include the 20 minutes before we put in our order. By the time we got back to the office, it was close to 2. My coworkers then went back outside to get pizza because they had to throw away their orders because the tuna didn't taste fresh at all (what kind of dumb ass orders tuna at a bar anyways?) and the lettuce was almost rancid. My steak tacos were pretty dreadful, but edible, so I wolfed them down.

Goal: get good deal while trying out a new place.

Outcome: almost 90 minutes of waiting for terrible food with zero saving over what I normally spend on lunch, leading to my first Yelp review ever (because I'm usually too lazy to review anything; and endless mocking from the coworkers every time we walk past this wretched place now.

This past Friday, I realized that my second W Hotel coupon would expire on Sunday so I trekked over there after work. We got there at 7:30ish but the bouncer wouldn't let us in because he claimed there were 1500 people in the bar already (which I find hard to believe because that's like 5x the max capacity). He suggested coming back on Saturday between 3 and 5 (WTF??) and conveniently didn't hear me explaining that I would be out of town the rest of the weekend. So we went to see "Super 8" at the Regal Cinema nearby (which was very enjoyable and I highly recommend, btw) and then tried our luck at the W again. By this time it was almost 11 already. No bouncer at the door stopped us so we went straight up to the 5th floor bar and lounge. As we walked into the lounge, it looked about half empty and no hostess greeted us so we went inside and sat down at a table by ourselves. After waiting for 10 minutes with no one coming over to take our order in the half empty lounge, I flagged down a hostess and asked her how we could order drinks. Long story short, she said all the tables were reserved already until 4 am, but we could "hang out there" and order from the bar, even though the place was pretty empty. So I went over to the bar and gave one of the bartenders my coupon and was told that kitchen was closed so no more appetizers. I said that's fine and we'll just order drinks then. He took the coupon, gave me a drinks menu, and then never looked in my direction again. I spent the next 30 minutes standing by the bar trying to get the two asshole bartenders' attention while one of them flirted with a bunch of girls at the other end. Finally, a new bartender came and took my order and took another 10 minutes to make all 4 drinks. During this time, some random black dude kissed me on the cheek because he was drunk and it was his birthday. I was initially surprised and then tried to figure out if I knew him because he looked kinda familiar for some reason. He seemed like a fun-loving guy and I might have done worse on previous drunken occasions myself, so it was all good. Anyhoo, we hanged out on the sofa for another hour enjoying the great drinks (the Hoegaarden cocktail was super refreshing) while the place got emptier. When it was time to leave, the bill came with all 4 drinks credited, yet another 18% mandatory tip ("large group service" or some bullshit like that), and taxes. So I ended up paying almost $60 total for 4 drinks that averaged about $13 per drink, which means in the end I saved about $15 or $20.

Goal: tried to use up the last coupon before expiration
Outcome: Shitty shitty service with attitude. Never going back there again.

After using these coupons, it dawned on me that the only winner in the whole thing is the middle man (e.g. Living Social). Instead of it being a win/win/win situation, where I enjoy great deals, the venues attract new customers, and the coupon sites make a cut, the venues can't offer decent service/goods because they underestimate the demand, I and hordes of other people get annoyed enough that we never want to return, and the coupon sites still collect all that money. Not sure how sustainable this business model will be for all the coupon sites. Oh, I also can't stand those bullshit whimsical Groupon deal blurbs that sound like they were written by a bunch of Creative Writing dropouts.  They all sound so awkward, forced and retarded.

But Restaurant Week starts next week! Guess some people just never learn :)