Local advertising executive Patrick Finan launched City Dining Cards three years ago, and since then, the venture has branched out to seven other cities in the Northeast.
Each deck of City Dining Cards sells for $20 and includes 52 cards offering $10 off a $30 bill at participating local restaurants. A separate cocktail deck offers buy-one-get-one-free drink promotions. The latest cards are valid through 2013.
Finan talked about what it’s been like to get the venture off the ground and find a niche in a market that already is cluttered with entertainment books and daily deal websites.
Q: How did City Dining Cards get its start?
A: City Dining Cards actually started out of Block Club Creative. Block Club is about 5 years old. We’re a design and marketing firm with a pro-local focus. We started the company when I was about 20 years old.
The dining cards started as a side project about two years ago. It started because we knew all these great local restaurant owners. We had worked with retailers from the creative side of our business. We were able to really quickly create this and put it out there and watch what happened. We were thrilled with what did happen. It became very popular overnight.
Q: There already are entertainment books and other similar coupon books available locally, plus Groupons and other daily deal sites. What made you think dining cards could have a niche in this market?
A: They’re really attractive for everyone who’s using them. If you’re a restaurant, you’re one of only 50 that participate every year. They’re all locally owned restaurants. And the discount is really manageable. Restaurants give a $10 off $30 discount, before tax, tip and alcohol. That works within their margins and it also encourages people to come in and try the place. There are no strange conditions or blackout dates.
On the other side of that, as a customer, that’s a great deal as well. $10 off is a significant savings. They also appreciate that no matter what restaurant they go to, whether it’s for lunch or dinner, they’re getting the same deal at every place. It’s a great way to try someplace new and to support the restaurants in their community and save a little money.
Q: You also have a deck of cocktail cards this year. Last year, you also had shopping cards and buy-one-get-one-free cards. Why did you go from four different decks to two?
A: We’re not afraid to try something out and change it to make it better. We had four different decks in Western New York last year, mainly because we thought there was an opportunity there and our retailers and restaurateurs and bar owners asked for it. So we tried it out. The shopping cards and the buy-one-get-one cards were just a flop. They weren’t popular, so we pulled it.
Q: You also changed the way the cocktail cards work. Instead of $10 off $30, they’re now buy-one-get-one-free. Why?
A: We looked at the cocktail cards and asked how we could make it a better experience for the customer: How do people buy drinks at a bar? If you and I went out to a bar, we might spend $30, but you might buy a round of drinks and I buy a round and someone else buys a round. Even though we’re getting above that $30 minimum that we had last year, we’re all paying for it in a different transaction.
We talked to our bar owners and we came up with this idea to do 50 buy-one-get-one-free drinks at the 50 bars that participate. It’s an awesome way to bar hop, go with a friend and try a bunch of different places out.
Q: Plus, $30 worth of drinks is a lot of drinks.
A: It’s a lot of drinks, and that’s why it didn’t work as well as we wanted it to.
Q: You’ve got 52 cards in a deck. What if more than 52 bars or restaurant want to participate? Are all the decks the same?
A: We have a waiting list in almost all of our second-year cities, or third-year cities like Buffalo. We do cap it at 50 restaurants and we give two wild cards in every deck for a free product. This year, if you buy a deck of dining or cocktail cards in Buffalo, you get a card for a free cheese pizza from Delta Sonic. Cafe Aroma gives a free coffee in some of the decks, and Paula’s Donuts gives a free doughnut. Let’s be honest, if you’re coming in for a free coffee or a doughnut, you’re probably walking out with another coffee or a dozen of Paula’s Donuts.
Q: You also offer the cards for fundraising programs. How does that work?
A: The fundraising program is somewhere around 10 percent of our sales in most markets. It’s a really neat program. Organizations buy the decks from us for $10 apiece and they sell them for $20. They keep 50 percent of everything they sell. It’s a nice alternative to wrapping paper and chocolate bars. Plus, we give 5 percent back to the food banks in each of our cities.
Q: You’ve moved into new markets. How’s that gone?
A: It’s been great. We’re in eight cities across the Northeast, across the Thruway in New York state, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany. We’re in Providence and Boston. We’re in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
When we go into a city, we look for really great partners. We work with local magazines and alternative weekly papers there. We work with Yelp. We work with the food bank in every market we’re in.
Q: How many people work on City Dining Cards?
A: Block Club has a team of 12 and City Dining Cards is about six.
Q: Is it a challenge to get the cards in stores?
A: Every part of the business is challenging. It’s quite a task to have a product and a concept that a lot of people haven’t necessarily seen before or don’t know and bring it to a market that’s not your hometown. Getting into retail stores specifically, it takes a lot of time and we spend a lot of time nurturing the relationships we have.
Q: You also have a new product called Fridge Phrases? What is it?
A: It’s our first foray into new product design. We just rolled it out in Buffalo. There are 220 word magnets for your refrigerator. You can play with them and arrange them to be really crass with them or be really cute with them. It was a natural progression because we have all these great retail contacts. For us, does it make more sense to go deeper with them or does it make more sense to try to establish all these new relationships in another market? For the time being, we think we want to go deeper.