Complaints pile up from restaurant owners over coupon website

CHICAGO -- A popular discount dining website is under fire after numerous complaints have been made by restaurant owners who said they are being taken advantage of.

Over the years, diners have sounded off about problems with restaurant.com, and now restaurant owners are chiming in as well. The complaints are so loud, the website earned a grade achieved by only 1.1 percent of businesses rated by the Better Business Bureau in the area--an “F.”

Some establishments are hungry for more information on the Arlington Heights company doing business all over the country. Brick oven pizzas and homemade pastas are the menu items that have kept Affresco in Park Ridge, Ill., in business for 10 years. Early on, partnering with the dining deals website restaurant.com seemed like a risk worth taking for Affresco’s owner.

“We tried it and it wasn’t a great fit by any means and canceling with them took literally three to five months,” Sergio Lazzara, the restaurant's owner. That was around 2010.

“One day we get all these restaurant.com gift certificates all at once," Lazzara said seven years later.

He said there were six to eight vouchers at a time. Customers walked them in after buying them on restaurant.com with the promise of dining at a discount.

Affresco’s owner later learned his restaurant had been added again to the list of over 17,000 restaurants participating nationwide without his consent and without his knowledge.

A text from the general manager at Affresco explained how when trying to get removed from the website, she was laughed at by the staff there and she kept being transferred to another department.

There was a similar circumstance at Omega Restaurant and Bakery in nearby Niles, Ill.

“A customer came in and showed us a coupon,” Tom Konstantopoulos, Omega's owner, said. “The (waitress) didn’t know and she took it. Later she said, ‘I didn’t know we were doing business with restaurant.com.’ I said, ‘We’re not doing business with restaurant.com.’ So it happened a couple of times. So what I did was photocopied it and put it on the door and said we don’t do business with restaurant.com. and they used our name without our authorization.”

The Better Business Bureau said restaurant.com currently has an “F” rating for a pattern of complaints that date back to 2015. The non-profit reviewed the site in 2016 and again in 2017 and there were still complaints from both dissatisfied diners and outraged restaurant owners. And the BBB said there was no action in that time by the operators of the website at all.

“We actually have consumer complaints where they say they try to use them in multiple locations and the restaurants say ‘I never signed up with this company’ or ‘I cancelled years ago,’” BBB president and CEO Steve Bernas, said.

There were 187 complaints since 2015, according to the BBB. The number is larger according to restaurant.com’s CEO, 255 in three years. Yet, only 29 complaints since 2010 registered with the Illinois Attorney General’s office. Not enough to launch an investigation. And they all were consumer related. Not restaurant complaints.

So what does restaurant.com have to say about all this?

“Two hundred and twenty-five complaints over a three-year period when millions of certificates have been issued and used is a phenomenal record of customer appreciation of which we are extremely proud," CEO Kenneth Chessick told WGN News.

The website claimed it has saved customers nearly $800,000,000 through its program over almost 20 years of business.

Those words and figures that don’t mean much to the Greek diner or Italian restaurant. One owner had to involve his lawyer to get taken down from the website. The other threatened to go public.

Chessick told WGN News that establishments are added to the website’s list of participating restaurants because of poor communication with staff.  He said restaurant workers, over the phone, are agreeing to participate without the knowledge or permission of the owner.

He went on to say that his sales staff not only calls to set up the arrangement with a restaurant, they even call back to confirm.

The restaurant owners WGN News spoke to said that isn’t what takes place.

One week ago, WGN News requested copies of those phone calls. The company’s CEO promised to provide them but has yet to as of this time.

The Illinois Attorney General’s office said any complaints should first go to restaurant.com. If they can’t be resolved, if that fails, you can always register a complaint with the BBB or call the Attorney General’s consumer fraud hotline.

Restaurant.com
www.help.restaurant.com/

IL AG Consumer Fraud Hotline:
(800) 386-5438

BBB:
Phone: (312) 832-0500
En Español: (312) 832-9803
Fax: (312) 595-9760
bbbinfo@chicago.bbb.org