The Wrong Way to Give Restaurant Gift Cards

You might be tempted by the ease and convenience, but it's not the right move.

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For the subpar gift-giver, the flood of annual holiday gift guides can be a bit overwhelming. Their recommendations, while excellent, are numerous, and by the time you zero in on some good ideas for your loved ones, surprise! It’s too late to place an order that’ll arrive in time for the holidays. In these moments, it’s typical to throw one’s hands up and just buy a gift card for a nice restaurant in town. The recipient will like that. Won’t they?

We’re here to tell you not to give in to this temptation. Though it seems both thoughtful and highly useful, a gift certificate to a high-end restaurant is not the winning solution you think it is.

What to consider when buying a restaurant gift certificate

We’ve all heard the grim statistics surrounding the opening of a new restaurant. While the estimates vary, it can be assumed that somewhere between 30% and 60% of new restaurants will fail in their first year. It’s a precarious business any way you slice it, and the whole idea of a gift certificate relies on the safe assumption that the restaurant will still, you know, exist by the time you wish to use it. As such, it’s a gift saddled with a ticking clock.

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Understand, too, that the amount we usually spend on friends and family at the holidays doesn’t necessarily match up with the cost of a meal at a nice restaurant. When gifting a restaurant meal this way, you’ll want to make sure the certificate covers the party’s entire bill, not just part of it, or the gift recipient’s share of it. Even if the recipient goes out with one other person, that meal can quickly add up to $150. Are you willing to invest that in a dinner that they might not even like that much?

Even if you go all-out and provide enough money on the gift card for apps, entrees, drinks, and desserts, tipping is where things can get a little dicey. Tipping on gift cards is possible at many restaurants, and becoming easier to do thanks to modern POS systems, but the gift giver might not have factored this into the total amount of the gift card. In the event that the recipient deliberately lowers the total cost of their meal in order to tip with the gift card balance, the restaurant ends up making less money from that transaction—something to consider if you’re buying the gift card in an attempt to support a local business.

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Beyond those practical concerns, presenting a gift card when it’s time to pay the bill might just make the diner feel self-conscious. It could come off as overly thrifty, especially if they have brought a date to the meal. If the gift leaves the recipient second-guessing their sense of decorum, they’re less likely to redeem the gift certificate at all.

If your friend starts talking up the hot new spot that just opened up in town, it’s probably because they want to go with you. So, if you want to get them a nice gift, simply invite them to the restaurant and treat them to a meal by picking up the bill—that way they get the gift of your company, too.

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How to do restaurant gift cards right

Even if a high-end gift certificate isn’t the way to go, there are still plenty of options that make wonderful gifts. Here are a few:

  • Fast casual spots: As a general rule, places with counter service lend themselves better to gift cards than places with table service. The card transaction can be handled before you sit down to enjoy your meal, not after, and tipping options are more seamlessly integrated at the register.
  • Their favorite chain: Most people know whether their best friend is Team Starbucks or Team Dunkin’. Cater to their interests and buy a gift card to their coffee chain of choice, which can be loaded into their rewards app; this helps them earn loyalty points whenever they redeem it.
  • An independent business: If you want to support smaller local spots, check whether, say, that cute new coffee shop in your friend’s neighborhood offers gift certificates. This could introduce your friend to their new favorite remote work spot and provide a fledgling business with a new loyal customer all at once. Either way, the cafe nets $25, and that’s never a bad thing.