The days of keeping track of a dozen or so loyalty punch cards in your wallet are quickly fading into the past, as more restaurants, grocers and coffee shops integrate their rewards programs for frequent customers into digital point-of-sale systems, or those linked to a customer's phone number or email. While some industry reports blame millennials' mobile device habits, technological convenience is also dictating that small businesses offer such programs in a non-paper format.
And while the days are gone of endless mega-deals on Groupon, which continues to sell coupons for deeply discounted dining (though much less so than during its peak, several years ago), new online-based, nationally reaching programs are springing up. We're here to break down how local restaurants — and some grocery and food producers — are taking advantage of these digital promotions, why some still prefer the old-fashioned paper punch cards, and which subscription-based dining programs are worth your while.
When you think of loyalty cards, coffee may spring to mind first. With so many coffee shops and stands in the Inland Northwest, loyalty programs are a popular and easy way to turn customers into regulars, or reward them for being regulars.
INDABA COFFEE, which opened in Spokane's West Central neighborhood in 2009, has long offered a free drink for every 10 purchased. While their sleek plastic cards (with the ability to look you up in the system should you forget it) seemed cutting-edge at the time, in 2014, the coffee purveyor has since gone even more high-tech with Square's point-of-sale system integrated loyalty program. Now you receive virtual punches, tied to your email address or phone number (this works even if you pay with cash). In 2016, when Indaba decided they wanted to offer a free drink (or 10 punches) for every bag of coffee purchased as well, it was an easy feature to add into the system.
For Indaba owner Bobby Enslow, a loyalty program was essential: "Stats show loyalty cards work."
He's happy with the loyalty program Square offers, as well as other connected features, such as being able to send a free birthday drink or emails about upcoming events and promotions to customers.
Indaba isn't the only local business taking advantage of the power of Square for a loyalty program. ZONA BLANCA ceviche bar in downtown Spokane is using it for their lunch and dinner options. Every time a customer spends $25, they get a star. Ten stars gets you a $25 gift certificate.
Even with its ease for both parties, not everyone is choosing digital options. Chef Tony Brown used paper punch cards at STELLA'S (the 11th sandwich was always free), throughout the life of the restaurant when it was in its Broadway location until early this year. Now that Stella's sandwiches are housed within Ruins, there are new punch cards with the new name (still only valid on the sandwiches). If you have still have your trusty old Stella's punch card, don't worry, they'll still honor it at RUINS.
Brown, who describes himself as "old school," prefers the hard copy. "If I had it my way, I'd be carving a stone tablet in the back," he jokes.
HUCKLEBERRY'S NATURAL MARKET on the lower South Hill is also still going the paper route, with four different punch cards for beverages, lunch, dinner and breakfast options. Stop by the coffee bar for an espresso card, and swing by the juice bar for another card. If you frequent the omelette or pasta bars on Fridays and Saturdays, you'll want to pick up a combined card (for both bars). As if that weren't enough, there is a separate card for lunch purchases. All of the cards offer a free beverage or meal with the purchase of 10, with the exception of lunch, which gives you the sixth one free.
Loyalty programs aren't limited to meals and beverages. Several local businesses offer them for staple purchases as well. You may know that coffee and tea at the KITCHEN ENGINE can be purchased in bulk, but you might not know about their coffee and tea club cards. Each ounce of tea or pound of coffee goes toward a free ounce or pound (buy 10, get one free).
If you shop at MAIN MARKET CO-OP downtown, you may be aware that you can become a member — which isn't a requirement for shopping there — that goes a little deeper than the title. If you buy in, either paying $180 up front, or $10 per year until $180 is reached, you're actually part owner of the co-op with full voting rights. In the short term, ownership gets you 10 percent off one visit to the co-op per month, regardless of your order's size or amount, and some items on shelves include special member-only prices. In the long term, as the co-op becomes more profitable, the goal is to offer owners dividends on money they've spent in the previous year. Main Market also has several local business partners (including Northwest Seed & Pet and Spa Paradiso) which offer a discount to co-op owners.
Some local shoppers recognize CASACANO FARMS from the Thursday Market in South Perry. While you can always buy fresh produce, eggs and meat at the market, you can also choose between two options for becoming a member, taking advantage of discounts and other perks. For $75 a year, you'll be invited to a special, weekly members-only market at the farm, just off the Palouse Highway. This Wednesday event also offers special member pricing; for $100 per year, you'll be able to shop there and also get the same member pricing at the Thursday Market. CasaCano Farms chose this approach after doing a traditional CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. The farm's owners felt this version offered its members more flexibility (if you don't want kale that week, don't buy it!) and made it less of a hassle to skip a weekly trip out to the farm.
In a more traditional model of grocery store rewards programs, the newly opened MY FRESH BASKET market in Kendall Yards offers its own in-store loyalty program accessible via a free mobile app (for iOS and Android). Scan your unique barcode or enter your phone number at checkout and earn 6 cents back for every $5 spent in store; your balance can be redeemed on any purchase and at any time.
If you buy enough groceries from any of these purveyors, signing up for these programs, even those you must buy into, can be well worth it financially. The trick with paid loyalty programs is always in balancing a desire to support something small and local with your spending habits. If you're willing to be loyal, these might be perfect programs for you.
While GROUPON's online deals have become less popular — on both the restaurant and customer side — than during the company's heyday from about 2009 to 2011, many local restaurants are still offering deep discounts for customers (certain restrictions still apply; make sure you read them before you buy, or redeem). A recent search of Groupon's current offers pulled up just under 40 coupons for food and drink in the Inland Northwest, most offering between 30 and 60 percent off a future purchase of a set value.
But Groupon isn't the only place to buy into deals on dining out; as a new subscription-based program recently entered the Spokane-area market earlier this year. GODINE offers discounted entrées at nearly 30 participating restaurants in the Inland Northwest. For a $20 monthly fee, a single subscriber can get half-off one entrée (per visit; there's no limit on how often you can use the perk at member restaurants each month) at participating restaurants (go to godineclub.com for a complete list). A $30/month membership allows a second person to enjoy the discount, while $50/month covers you and up to three guests. For recruiting friends to the program, you can earn free months' worth of membership rates.
Similarly, the online dining reservation service OPENTABLE offers a built-in rewards program for making and honoring restaurant reservations made through its website. Most reservations earn 100 points, but certain times and locations can earn you 1,000 points, which can be redeemed (at 2,000-, 5,000- and 10,000-point increments, for $10, $50 and $100, respectively) for gift cards to use toward your next OpenTable restaurant booking, or for Amazon gift cards.
Feeding yourself, whether when buying groceries at a local market or dining out, can add up and put a strain on your budget if you do it often, so consider all of these programs and how they could benefit your lifestyle. ♦