With meal deliveries now accounting for as much as 60 percent of restaurant traffic, some owners are turning the tables on customers, thanks to several apps that allow diners to earn gift certificates or discounts in exchange for making a reservation during off-peak hours.
Apps such as Seated, Craved, and OpenTable are enticing diners with various reward schemes, including up to 40 percent off a dinner bill.
OpenTable offers points that can be redeemed for discounts on another visit. Craved offers a straight discount on a bill. Seated offers a kickback from the bill that can be used toward experiences and gift cards from everywhere from Delta to Amazon.
Nicola Marzovilla, owner of iTrulli, an Italian restaurant that has operated in New York City for the last 25 years tells NBC News he’s tried a variety of programs over the years, but currently uses OpenTable and Seated to fill tables during off hours, which he said are usually before 5:30 p.m. and after 8:30 p.m.
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“The reality is, there are quiet times,” Marzovilla said. “Once you are open, your expenses are fixed, so any added income helps.”
While this year will mark the tenth consecutive year of restaurant industry expansion, with a total of $863 billion in sales, growth rates are now more moderate than in previous years, according to Hudson Riehle of the National Restaurant Association.
“One of the most important developments for the industry has been the rapid growth of the off-premises market: takeout, delivery, curbside, food trucks,” Riehle told NBC News.
Seamless, Grubhub, and MealPal, which offers discounted portions of restaurant-quality meals, have created new revenue streams.
While restaurant sales are still healthy, the growing trend of ordering takeout means owners like Marzovilla have to turn to new ideas in an attempt to beat out the competition and keep their dining rooms full.
Stefanie Tuder, a senior editor at Eater NY, said there are plenty of good deals out there for diners this holiday season -- but questions whether the discounts are truly serving restaurants in the long run.
“People using them tend to just want deals, and I'd be surprised if restaurants are making a ton of money off tables using these services,” Tuder said. “What they hope is that people like the restaurants and return at regular prices. Is that happening? I'm not entirely sure.”
Marzovilla said he pays, on average, a few dollars per person to the platforms that end up bringing customers in for a reservation at iTrulli. It’s effective, he said, even though he’d love to not have to pay for the off-peak traffic.
“With apps now, there seems to be a new wave of programs that try to get people into the seats. For us, it’s a love/hate thing,” he said. “Doing 10 extra covers at the end of the day, on top of our business is very helpful. Paying the fee? Not something that we enjoy.”