Got the best kind of phone call one afternoon last week: a friend was sitting on a $150 gift card to Nine75, the stylish restaurant at the corner of Lincoln and 10th, and he was ready to cash it in. Did I want to come along?
Well, I suppose that box of mac and cheese can wait a night.
Cut to a few hours later, around 10 o'clock. As I scraped up the last bits of the roasted potatoes that accompanied my short ribs, my gift-card-wielding friend handed the card to our server. Between three of us, we'd done what three guys with a $150 gift card are supposed to: eaten our way as close to $150 as we could, putting down plates of gourmet mac and cheese, salad, a ribeye, chicken and waffles, asparagus, lobster tacos, a couple of Newcastles. It was all delicious. We'd come up a little short (dessert, anyone?) but still managed a $125 bill.
The waiter took the card, but then suddenly reappeared, catching my friend on his way to the bathroom. Sorry, he said, but we're no longer accepting these. I nearly returned my short ribs onto the tablecloth.
My friend shook his head and disappeared into the bathroom. The waiter dove into the back. I sat quietly, asparagus-scented smoke billowing from my red ears.
Eventually the manager walked past, on his way out for the night. He apologized casually, explaining what I already knew but had forgotten: that Nine75 had changed owners a while back, sold by Jim Sullivan to the owners of the Jet Hotel and several clubs. They accepted the cards for a while, he said, but recently stopped. Their computers could no longer read them.
Needless to say, I was less casual in my response. I was embarrassed, knowing my friend with the gift card would end up picking up the tab, and that I wouldn't put up much of a fight. So I explained to the waiter, rather heatedly, that when his bosses bought the restaurant, they inherited the $150 paid for that card. If the machine can't read it, I said, just pick up the tab.
We -- and by we, I mean my more gainfully employed friend -- fortunately had the means to fork over the $150. But what if we didn't?
Nothing swayed the manager, and eventually he disappeared. "We" paid our tab and bolted.
The next day, I called George Eder, the CEO of Jet Entertainment, who was a little better at arguing his restaurant's position. He explained that after buying the failing restaurant in early October, he put out a press release announcing that they would accept Sullivan's gift cards until December 31. In that time, Eder says, the restaurant accepted $10,000 worth of gift cards. (That seems unlikely: that's more than one $100 gift certificate a day for three straight months. But I get the point.)
"It's tough enough right now," Eder said, referring to the economy. "I would love to be in a position to say I'm going to honor everything that's left to me. I also have to look at the long term health of the business. I have forty people working for me."
He also explained, much more clearly than his manager, why a new computer system prevented them from accepting the cards: They had no way of knowing how much was on the card. As far as they knew, it was a $25 gift card, or an already-used one we'd found in the alley.
Fair enough, I suppose. I told Eder that there must be more they could do -- a sign on the door or the host stand, something. After all, if they accepted $10,000 in gift cards in three months, there could be plenty more out there. But at some point, he said, they have to move on: "If the money was flowing, I'd honor them to the end of time."
Fine. But still, I'm left wondering: Isn't there something more they could do? Did I overreact? What would you do if your free meal suddenly cost you (or your generous friend) $150?