A New York-based Web start-up specializing in restaurant discounts and reservations is expanding into Chicago, hoping to give restaurateurs and diners an alternative to daily deal sites such as Groupon.
VillageVines officially launches in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington D.C. on Sept. 15. In the meantime, Chicagoans can sign up for the site starting today. When the site goes live, members will be able to log in and book a reservation through an online calendar that lists available restaurants and dates. VillageVines charges $10 per reservation and typically offers 30 percent off the check.
VillageVines said participating restaurants in Chicago include Al Primo Canto, C-House and Geja’s Cafe. In New York, high-end restaurants such as Le Cirque and Aquavit offer tables through the site.
One big difference between VillageVines and other daily deal sites is that diners do not need to bring in physical coupons because the site’s reservation system flags members to the restaurants and automatically subtracts the discount from the bill. VillageVines co-founder Benjamin McKean said this discreet way of handling the discounts enhances the dining experience, making it more palatable for occasions such as dates and business meals, and makes his venture more of a reservation service than just another Groupon wannabe.
“We want to be an alternative to OpenTable,” McKean said, referring to the popular online reservation service, which has also started offering daily deals. “We don’t want to be a Groupon. We don’t want to be a daily deals site.”
For restaurant owners, McKean said VillageVines is an attractive alternative to deal-of-the-day services because his company allows businesses to dictate the number of tables available for discount. This arrangement prevents restaurants from being overrun by hundreds or even thousands of coupon-wielding customers, who can often overwhelm a business or crowd out regular clients.
Georges Elbekai, owner of Al Primo Canto, said he’s done smaller-scale deals – - selling several hundred vouchers – - with LivingSocial and YouSwoop, both Groupon competitors. He’s on a waiting list to be featured for a Groupon deal, but is feeling less sure about partnering with the daily deal giant after hearing about how much traffic a single promotion can generate.
“Finding those other ways of advertising through VillageVines and smaller coupon deals is actually better,” said Elbekai, who has Al Primo Canto locations in Edgebrook and River North. “I can do, say, three to four coupon deals at a smaller pace, rather than having a huge one and getting my legs chopped.”
Elbekai said he make sure to offer discounts to regular customers as well so they are rewarded for their loyalty and don’t feel like the restaurant is devoting all its attention to new business.
“We’re in the service industry,” he said. “There’s a fine line we have to draw between your regular customers and new customers you’re trying to make.”