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Am I a Jerk if I Cash In My Restaurant Gift Cards?

Will using a card purchased in the first act of the pandemic be harmful in the third?

Restaurant gift card from Rooster & Rice Rooster & Rice

Welcome to Ask Eater, a column from Eater SF where the site’s editors answer specific or baffling dining requests from readers and friends. Have a question for us? Submit it via this form.

Hey Eater SF,

How are restaurants feeling about gift certificates being used? I have a couple from before COVID-19, but I’m afraid I’ll be hurting the restaurant if I use them. Thoughts?

Certificate Stacker

Dear Stacker,

You are not alone. In addition to the gift certificates you already had, many restaurants encouraged diners to buy gift cards at the beginning of the pandemic, as a way to support their favorite restaurants. One of Instagram’s founders even set up an entire website called Save Our Faves, to that end, and there was a buzzy social campaign called Nom Nom Bond. It was a gift card feeding frenzy.

But at what point exactly is it cool to use all those stacked up gift cards? That’s a tough question. Unfortunately, gift cards were always problematic, relying on the kind of short-term logic we all had when we hoped this would be over “soon.” As shelter in place drags on, and restaurants are still struggling, I understand your hesitation to call in your micro-loans.

Rooster & Rice, the fast-casual favorite for khao mun gai, saw a boom in gift card business. CFO Min Park tells Eater SF that the company has pulled in about $30,000 worth of gift cards during the pandemic, and lots of customers are happily trading those in for tender poached chicken and fat-slicked rice.

“Yes of course!” Park says matter-of-factly. “Different shop owners will say different things, but for us, we appreciated the support earlier, and the customer has every right to redeem the gift card now.”

Similarly, the Back of the House group — one of the city’s largest restaurant groups, with 32 spots like Beretta, Flores, and the Bird — reports that in particular, their popular burger restaurants got a bump. Their Super Duper Burger mini-chain has sold 148 percent more gift cards than they did in the same period from March to August of last year, and almost doubled their holiday sales, which is peak gift card season. A representative from the company also waved off any etiquette worries. So use those gift cards, mini-burger and garlic-fry fans.

Wayfare Tavern, Tyler Florence’s handsome pub in the FiDi, always did brisk gift card business, and offers a little more context. Wayfare traditionally welcomes lots of business lunchers, who previously picked up between three to five thousand dollars in gift cards per month (not too shabby). The pub continued to see steady gift card sales the first few months of the pandemic, at nearly two thousand dollars a month. But it was a tick down from their usual sales, nowhere near their holiday numbers, and it definitely dropped off in the summer.

“In March, April, and May, there was hope that we could come out of this,” says Andrea Boyd, director of sales and events. “Now, honestly, people don’t have as much faith in restaurants in general. With all of the closings, it’s hard for people to want to buy a gift card.” She also sympathizes that many people have been laid off from jobs, and are tightening their own dining budgets. With that in mind, she whole-heartedly encourages anyone to use a gift card. Here’s how to think about it:

Do use the gift cards. It’s your money. Restaurants shouldn’t give you a hard time. Wayfare Tavern has just as many people using gift cards as usual, and the restaurant is delighted that diners are driving downtown to pick up fried chicken and popovers. “We’re happy! All sales are good sales at this point. Use your gift cards.”

Do tip separately and tip well. It might not even be possible to use a gift card balance toward the tip, but let’s all agree, the best practice is to tip separately, in cash. That way, you make sure that the staff who are risking their lives to serve you are getting something out of this transaction.

But maybe wait a beat if you’re especially worried about a specific spot. Boyd points out that a decision to use a gift card should depend on the restaurant. Wayfare is well funded and established, so it manages its books by the book: when gift cards are purchased, Boyd puts that money in a separate bank account, and considers it a deposit. When someone actually uses the gift card, that’s when they ring through the sales. But the smaller restaurants and mom-and-pop shops might be scraping every penny right now, and handle it differently.

Super Duper Burger

721 Market St, San Francisco, CA 94103 (415) 538-3437 Visit Website

Wayfare Tavern

558 Sacramento Street, , CA 94111 (415) 772-9060 Visit Website

Rooster & Rice

2211 Filbert Street, , CA 94123 (415) 776-3647 Visit Website