Dozens of companies will extend a "thank you" on Wednesday to the men and women who have served in the country's armed forces with Veterans Day freebies, discounts and deals.
These corporate gestures of goodwill are growing in number, experts say, as brands realize they have much to gain by promoting a cause whose appeal crosses geographic and political lines, and as social media makes it easier for people to learn about and share promotions. (See below for a detailed list of deals.)
"Over the last five years it's changed dramatically," said Sarah Blansett, spokeswoman at Military.com. "The longer we are at war, the more folks want to say thank you. … Over the course of 13, 14 years of war it's gotten to be more of a tradition."
"We definitely see a spike in interest in military discounts and freebies like that around more patriotic holidays, including Veteran's Day," agreed Rebecca Lehmann, manager of content marketing at the deal site BradsDeals.com. "We do see an uptick in traffic and sales on Veterans Day."
Brad's Deals also keeps a running tally of year-round discounts for service members and vets, which Lehmann said has been shared on social media sites more than 8,000 times.
Kendal Perez, spokeswoman for CouponSherpa.com, said site traffic rose 25 percent on Veteran's Day last year compared to a week prior. Traffic in the site's restaurants category, most popular for Veterans Day deals, rose 31 percent.
Although social media help spread word of these campaigns, the networks' growing reach and an active military blogosphere mean that any missteps can be magnified. Perez said a company's brand can be damaged if a store or restaurant is overwhelmed and can't deliver the promised items, or if untrained staff members don't make good on the company's offer.
Randi Law, communications manager for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said that while most companies do have their priorities in the right place when it comes to making a good-faith effort to thank service members, there are a couple of details they — or consumers who simply wish to support companies saying "thanks" for military service — should note.
"It's important to find out what proof of service is required, and is it taking place at participating locations or nationwide," she said.
The "at participating locations" clause is one that pops up frequently in the fine print of Veterans Day offers, especially among businesses that operate on a franchise model — like many restaurants, especially in the fast food sector.
The other variable is how a service member needs to provide proof of their eligibility. Many companies just ask the service member to wear their uniform or bring a picture of them in uniform, some ask for a military ID or VA health care card.
Here is a partial list of companies that are offering freebies to current and former service members (except where otherwise noted) on Veterans Day this year. Since participation may vary, Law recommends calling the outlet you plan to visit to confirm participation:
Applebee's: Free entrée from a fixed menu on Veterans Day.
Chili's: Free entrée from a set menu.
Olive Garden: Free meal from a special menu; family members eating with them get 10 percent off their meals.
T.G.I. Friday's: Free lunch from a special menu from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Denny's: Free "build your own Grand Slam" breakfast from 5 a.m. until noon.
California Pizza Kitchen: Free entrée from a special menu of pizza, pasta and salad.
Little Caesars: Free $5 pizza-and-beverage lunch combo from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sizzler: Free lunch of chicken, steak or shrimp, and coffee, tea or a fountain drink until 4 p.m. (See participating locations here.)
Hurricane Grill & Wings: Free meal from a limited menu, including a nonalcoholic drink.
Red Lobster: Free appetizer or dessert (no purchase necessary) from a special menu, from Monday through Thursday.
Golden Corral: Free buffet dinner and beverage from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at all locations.
Steak 'n Shake: Free breakfast skillet and coffee from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. for veterans.
PDQ restaurants: Free sandwich or three-piece chicken tenders.
Friendly's: Free "Big-Two-Do" breakfast or burger and fries lunch (limit one meal per person).
Bob Evans Restaurants: Choice of four free breakfast items.
Red Robin Gourmet Burgers: Free Red's Tavern Double burger with fries.
Cheeseburger in Paradise: Free burger and fries.
IHOP: Free pancakes with strawberries, blueberry compote and whipped topping from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
World of Beer: Free draught beer (for members 21 and over).
Menchie's Frozen Yogurt: Free 6-ounce yogurt with toppings at all of its 300-plus locations.
Cracker Barrel: Free Double Chocolate Fudge Coca-Cola cake for veterans.
Starbucks: Free tall (12-ounce) coffee, also open to military spouses.
Peet's Coffee & Tea: free coffee (drip only) or tea.
Great Clips salon chain: free haircuts. Vets can either get a free cut or a voucher for a free cut to use any time before the end of the year. Other customers who purchase a service on Veterans Day will get a free haircut voucher to give to a vet (must be redeemed in the same time frame, and there's a limit of one per customer.)
Startup Bellhops.com (like Uber if you need to lift heavy things): Free moving help — two movers for an hour of work — for veterans who order on Veterans Day, for jobs taking place between Nov. 13 and Dec. 15, 2015. (Use the coupon code VeteransDay2015.)
Meineke Car Care Centers: Free oil changes. (Basic oil change only; advance booking at Meineke.com is recommended.)
Bed and Breakfasts: Around 500 bed and breakfasts and inns participating in the BandBsforVets.org program will offer free rooms for vets staying Nov. 10 or 11.
The Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee: Free admission on Veterans Day as well as the weekend; also open to families.
Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia: Free admission Nov. 6 through Veterans Day to military families, their dependents and veterans.
Knott's Berry Farm: Free admission, with a spouse or guest, through Dec. 20; additional tickets may be purchased at a discount.