Police Settle Groupon Dispute in Montclair


A recent kerfuffle at Trattoria Rustica in Montclair when a patron had issues with a Groupon coupon raises questions about the success of the popular discount coupon locally.

Groupon works by featuring a “deal of the day” to email customers, offering discounts to local and national companies.  One coupon per day is offered in each market it serves; the deal only becomes available if a certain number of people sign up for the offer, or when the deal is “tipped.”  There is no upfront cost for retailers, and Groupon keeps half of the money the customer pays.  Typically while the deal is only available for a few days, it can be used for a much longer period.  Problems  arise if the deal isn’t fully spelled out, or if the demand exceeds the quantity.

Mark and Stasha Cohen went to Trattoria Rustica, attempting to use their Groupon.  They told Baristanet that their waitress had said they could use the Groupon for either a la carte or the prix fixe option.  Eventually they were told that they could not use the Groupon on the prix fixe:

When we told her that was not acceptable to us, she left and came back with another server to argue with us.  Again, we were not given a check.  We demanded a check and were told “I have to check with the owner.”  A good deal of time passed, still no check and still a demand that we pay based on the full price of each individual item in the check with the $30 groupon(which we had paid $15 when we purchased it) deducted from the bill.  If we had agreed to this, we would have received no benefit whatsoever from the Groupon since the bill would have been $15 higher than the cost of the prix fixe meals. … To make matters worse, apparently Trattoria Rustica’s staff thought it was appropriate to call the Montclair Police Department, as three patrolcars showed up to deal with the situation!  Eventally, the police officers managed to convince the serve staff that we were correct and that we should pay our bill based on the prix fixe dinner cost.

Owner Pat Turano stated that the customers became belligerent, and that the person who had told them the Groupon was applicable was not a waiter, but a busgirl.  “It says you can’t combine it with any other offer,” Turano explained.  Two other couples, he said, told the Cohens to sit down, he said (Turano was not on the premises during the incident, but called the police himself in response to a call from the restaurant).  Something similar happened the night before with a woman using a Groupon, he said.  “Every restaurateur I know that has used them says ‘we will never use them again.'”

Toro Sushi bar in Upper Montclair is under contract with Groupon but still working out a deal.  “We agreed to 100, but they sold 723 coupons,” says owner Amy Chen.  “Our customers are not happy.”  They are working out a deal as to when the coupons can be used.

Chris Pavone, manager of Bar Cara, was manager of Fascino in Montclair, and had a mostly positive experience with Groupon.  “It seemed to bring a lot of new customers in,” he said, many of whom returned, though he did see that the lower tips upset some of the waiters.

Mesob, in Montclair, also used Groupon.  “We did it before anyone else,” said owner Bertti Mengistu.  “For one time it worked, but we wouldn’t do it again.”  For her, one downside was that there were no black-out dates when they signed on, and their Friday and Saturday nights were strong.

Greg Spinelli, owner of Tapastry Restaurant on Church Street, had nothing but praise for Groupon.  They ran a special Nov. 21-22, and “we sold over 900 coupons that are good through the end of May.”  Three weeks into it, he said he is seeing a “fair amount of repeat business, and people paying full retail.”  Unlike some other restauranteurs, he has had no problem with customers misunderstanding the deal.  “We anticipated and made our Groupon very user friendly.  We have no restrictions, other than that there is just 1 per table.”  He’s seen not only a lot of new faces, but a large age bracket as well, from people in their mid 20s through their mid 70s.   So successful was the Groupon that he’s planning to do it again in the 1st quarter to promote the restaurant’s brunch.  “You’ve got to know with a coupon, people are looking for a deal, and be prepared,” he said.
Have you used Groupon to eat out?  What was your experience?


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  1. The prospect of a half-priced meal should not carry with it half-hearted civility. One should accept the interpretation of the retailer, or restauranteur and if there is a dispute, take it up with Groupon. Busboys should never be asked these sorts of details. A pleasant conversation with the owner, by phone if need be, is appropriate. Again, any subsequent shortcoming of expectations should be taken up with Groupon.

  2. I have not used Groupon as I have heard mixed reviews such as those above. The bus girl was wrong to offer information if she wasn’t 100% certain about it. She should have said, “I’ll check and get back to you.” That would have saved a lot of aggravation.

    Also, if you’re dining out on a coupon (or using a service with one, such as in a nail salon), it is customary to tip your waiter/service person as though you were paying the full amount for said service.

  3. We use Groupon, Restaurant.com and open table every time we go out to eat. Restaurant.com allows you to use (1) coupon per month per restaurant, and they never expire. We can rotate 50 restaurants and go out once a week without taking advantage of the system. And with the open table points, we can even eat for free sometimes.
    Groupon, Living Social, Restaurant.com and others are great sites, but you still have to read. The “Buy it now” mentality causes a lot of headache for owners because their customers see a clock ticking down and dont have time to read, or they dont care to read and figure they can just argue when the time comes.

  4. It clearly states on the coupon “not applicable for prix fixe menu”. What is so hard to understand about that? I’ve used Groupon coupons many times and have never experienced a problem. Sometimes people are just looking to get into an altercation.

  5. We use restaurant.com and have never had an issue. It states the restrictions right there on the deal when you purchase it and also when you print it out. I’ve used livingsocial and groupon and never had an issue. Yipit is also good.

    On restaurant.com I have about 20 ‘deals’ that I’ve purchased dating back a few years. Since the restrictions change, for example, one place when I purchased it had no restriction you can use anytime, the new one’s say you can’t use fri/sat . Which one is good the new deal or the terms of my old one since they don’t expire?

  6. Have used Groupon once in town without a problem. Will no longer use restaurant.com nor go to Jake’s after having a completely valid gift cert w them only to be told they no longer accepted the gift certs (even though it had not expired).

  7. herb, if there is one with no restrictions, it will be honored. I had the same issue with one in NYC that we never got around to using, and when we finally did, the deal had drastically changed. Its good that you noticed they have changed their terms, so when you go, just talk to the waiter and let him know that you have an older certificate and the manager should approve it.

  8. “… the restaurant called the police, who supported the Cohens”. Why? It appears that the diners were clearly in the wrong. I’m puzzled.

  9. The customers have a right to be upset. If the waitress or bus person or ANYONE who works for the restaurant told them it could be used for the prix fixe then that should have been honored.

    I’m also VERY surprised a restaurant would go public and make statements regarding this event. What would the upside be for the restaurant? I only see downside. Anyone who sympathizes with the customers will be put off going to this restaurant because of this account.

    Should Baristanet also perhaps mention that they have a similar type coupon scheme which competes with Groupon when reporting on such?

  10. It’s too bad that people feel like they can tip based on what they actually pay and not on the cost of the items. More people should spend time in service industries to experience what it’s actually like and how many times you get a handful of change or a “cute” note instead of a gratuity.

    And I don’t understand what the problem was; as Anne Prince said, it clearly states that prix pixe is not included. Perhaps this couple had a group-on sent to them as a gift and the policy wasn’t on the coupon? (Just trying to give them the benefit of the doubt.)

    I was given Restaurant.com credits as a birthday gift over a year ago, and we haven’t used any of it. I guess I should check if new restaurants have been added to the list recently.

  11. Many moons ago, I received one of those big, fat coupon books as a gift. (Do they still publish them?) I think they were called Entertainment Books and they sold for around $40…this was pre-Internet.

    I had mixed feelings about them. True, if you used the book a few times, you could recoup what you spent. In my experience, however, many of the restaurants featured were sub-par or worse, out of business entirely! The dinner coupons usually had a deal where if you bought 2 dinners, you could get the less expensive dinner free or half-price. Many of them had caveats about when you could or couldn’t use them as well.

    Most of the book was filled with coupons I would never use: coupons for fast food joints, video gaming parlors, or places too far away.

    We dine out so infrequently today that we no longer bother with coupons. I have friends, however, who are “coupon junkies” and it’s become a full-time job with them, the clipping, cataloging and comparing. I don’t see the fun in that.

  12. We happened to go to Tratorria Rustica last week and hada restaurant.com certificate. We told the waiter we had it before ordering and he immediately told us we could use it for anything but the prix fixe. No issues, good food. I believe they added a tip to the bill based on the full amount before the discount. They added 18%. We probably would have left 20% (of the full amount)

  13. I have used Groupon and Yelp Deals (which work the same way as Groupons) enough times to say that I don’t see many problems with them. I have definitely visited restaurants that I wouldn’t normally go to because I purchased a Groupon/Deal and have then repeated my business. However, I did have one sort of bad experience: bought a Yelp Deal for Tosca on Church St. in Montclair, it was archived in my e-mail all ready to use – then I got an email from Yelp saying, “Thank you for using your Tosca Deal! Please review your experience!” I looked up my list of active Yelp Deals (which is a very nice feature, also had by Groupon) and it was gone, yet I had not used it. Thinking I was never going to get the $20 I paid for it back, I attempted to find a contact number for Yelp on their website – apparently they don’t have an actual phone. However, I sent them an email explaining the situation and they refunded my $20 a few days later, no questions asked. I have no idea how my Deal was used without me using it or what happened. Moral of the story: if you buy a lot Groupons, Yelp Deals, whatever, keep track of them because this can happen!

  14. As a small business owner, I have mixed feelings about the whole Groupon
    phenomenom. It’s another middle-man scooping profits from small businesses
    during a recession. I’ve read articles which have said it’s not a good deal for the business, contrary to the tesimony of some interviewed above.
    A lot of coupon users only eat out with coupons & never pay full freight, which is what the restaurants need to charge to survive.

    We are often hondled by people who can well afford our prices, out of a knee-jerk need to bargain. I figure that eating out is a discretionary luxury. You can afford it or you can’t. If you can afford it, then let the restaurant earn what they need — after all, look at the rate of attrition. It’s a tough business to make it in.

    The larger issue is that we’ve become a culture that will only consume if we feel there’s a deal in it — look at the tax abatements extended to developers who might otherwise not risk their own money. But the fact is, someone’s paying for it. Nothing is free.

  15. The customers were clearly wrong. I’ve used many groupons especially in the Montclair area and have never had a problem. Also, a total dope would only leave a tip based on the groupon price and not on the full price.

  16. As usual, Roc, your insights are invaluable. Yes, of course I know that. But you’re missing the point. Businesses, especially those trying to build their following, feel pressured to participate. Established businesses, or those doing well without it don’t have to bother.

    In my business, we have to be careful in how we allow proposals to be negotiated down, lest we be dropped from the running entirely. There is an endless supply of hungry would-be competitors willing to cut their throats to keep their doors open, and the buyers, who are very wealthy, smell blood & drive predatory bargains.

    In better times, more businesses would be less inclined to participate. It’s inherently exploitive.

  17. “But the fact is, someone’s paying for it. Nothing is free”

    …. yup a few of us on this site have been saying that for years. Let’s start with healthcare and we’ll work our way from there.

  18. If I were the customers, I would have thought twice before airing this issue on Baristanet–it does not reflect well on them! (Incidentally: is this a wise use of our police resources, no matter who they sided with?)

  19. “Businesses, especially those trying to build their following, feel pressured to participate.”

    Feh. So grow up. “Pressured?” Please.

  20. “In my business, we have to be careful in how we allow proposals to be negotiated down, lest we be dropped from the running entirely. There is an endless supply of hungry would-be competitors willing to cut their throats to keep their doors open, and the buyers, who are very wealthy, smell blood & drive predatory bargains.”

    Sounds like the glories of capitalism to me. Compete or perish! As a consumer, I LOVE predatory bargains!

    (your proclivity for left-wing political views make much more sense in light of your comment)

  21. I have a hard enough time keeping track of my grocery coupons, in order to get a vicarious thrill by saving $3.35 at Shop Rite, that I wouldn’t even consider some additional service that requires me to pay attention. Heck, someone gave me a gift certificate for Dave and Buster’s, and if I manage to remember that I need to drive the kids up to the Palisades Mall sometime before March 31st in order to use it, I will consider myself lucky.

    And on the extremely rare occasions that hubby and I can actually leave the house for a nice grown-up dinner, I am going straight to one of my favorite haunts, and dang the coupons!

    @Mrs M: my kid’s school used to sell those Entertainment Books every year. They were $25 if I remember right. The only reason why I caved and always bought one was because it contained four $5-off coupons for Shop Rite. So I was supporting the school, and it only cost me $5! However, there wasn’t much else in there that I ever used. I would frequently get home with a sack full of happy meals and then see that book taunting me from the bookshelf, with its plethora of Mickey Dee’s coupons. (sigh)

  22. “They were $25 if I remember right. The only reason why I caved and always bought one was because it contained four $5-off coupons for Shop Rite. So I was supporting the school, and it only cost me $5! ”

    I remember those. In our case it was for the band, I think. I asked them how much they made on the sale of the $20 book. Something like $5. So I just donated $6 and didn’t buy a book and everybody wins!

  23. A bit of a he said she said here, but based on what I’m reading, if the busgirl said it was ok, then sorry, the restaurant should have honored it. They should take responsibility for the actions of their employees.
    Besides, I don’t know that I would naturally think of a prix fix menu as a “special offer.” Some restaurants just have different menus–a la carte and prix fix. Generally you receive smaller portions w prix fix menus b/c you are getting more courses. Unless it was a special restaurant week prix fix menu.
    There are indications that the customers acted a bit inappropriately as well, and I’ve certainly witnessed my fair share of shameful patrons, but again, is bit of a he said she said.
    Either way, it would have been in the restaurant’s better interest to just honor the groupon and get them out the door rather than calling the cops.

  24. “Sounds like the glories of capitalism to me. Compete or perish! As a consumer, I LOVE predatory bargains!”

    If memory serves, you didn’t love owning your own business, though. I believe you mentioned here you had one once & gave it up.

    I believe it’s possible, ROC, to operate a successful business without taking those attitudes, or dishing them out. My business is in its 35th year, and weathering its fourth recession in a very recession-sensitive line of work. Our “proclivity for left-wing views” hasn’t interfered with business much, except maybe to make our employees like their jobs more.

  25. Oliver, Some people take their discounts seriously. Very seriously. It’s kind of what makes them tick. I worked in a restaurant as a kid and saw some outlandish behavior. Oy gevalt!

  26. First of all, we tipped 20% of the full bill, not the groupon discounted bill. Second, it was our waitress, NOT the busgirl who told us we could use the groupon on anything. Our groupon which expired the next day said NOTHING about not being able to use it on the prix fixe menu. The newer groupon from the restaurant does have that restriction. When one goes to a restaurant, 99.9% of the time the customer is right. To have 3 police cars come, over a $15 descrepancy was incredibly humiliating. I’m sure if the owner treats his customers this way, he will lose alot a business. I hope so.

  27. Anyone has experience with LivingSocial? Any businesses in Montclair using that? My belly ache about Groupon is that the deals seem to be at Spas and other sites that don’t appeal to me.

  28. This is not about if Groupon and like competitors are good deals or bad deals for businesses or customers, this is about common courtesy and good customer service. Has the owner of this restaurant heard any of the following phrases before: “the customer is always right” or “your team is only as good as the last person on the bench”. Whether waitress or bus girl, the fact that these customers were told they could use the Groupon for prix-fixed, end of story. If the waitress had spilled on the customers, or had the customers waited for an inordinate amount of time, any good (even average) restaurant would apologize profusely and take ownership for the mistake. Hey, they may even throw in a free dessert to smooth the problem.

    The benefit to business in daily deals like Groupon and Living Social is to entice new customers to become repeat customers. Businesses lose money on Groupons. However, when a customer receives excellent service, they are likely to return and the business makes money on the following trips. They may even tell their friends what a great experience they had. But in this case, the restaurant made what would have been a $15 loss (but with a returning full paying customer) into a police spectacle where the once customer will not return.

  29. I noticed on Yelp someone else who witnessed the Groupon melee recounted the evening:

    Well we don’t need to crucify the restaurant, nor the owner. Mistakes happen and so does mismanagement. I’m thinking the economy is stressing people out too.

  30. One of the Yelp posters asserts that “menu specials are cash only”. If that’s true, it would help to make that clear when folks are ordering.

    Many folks don’t routinely carry a lot of cash.

  31. I used a Groupon to buy my house here in Montclair last year – 50% off and, of course, it excluded the prix fixe option.

  32. the Cohens were correct, Rustica’s staff/owner were wrong. the coupon had no restrictions. i am certain Rustica’s new Groupon coupons do, this typically happens with groupon and restaurant.com coupons. i am shocked Rustica took it to this level; it reflects poorly on the business.

    restaurant.com offers $25 food credit for $3; it is foolish NOT to take advantage of this type of deal. it’s proven the coupons drive repeat business.

    everyone who works in the service industry must understand the edict: the customer is always right! the haughtiness which exists in the industry these days drives customers out the door never to return again. what also lacks is training, very few if any servers/staff are trained to manage tables or deal with questioning customers.

    btw, spaceck, your post is hilarious!

  33. I bought a groupon this past summer for the Asana House in Montclair. It was a terrible experience. I dont think alot of these small businesses know what they are getting themselves into when they sign up for these things. Its a bad economy out there and alot of people are looking to save. I called in advance to confirm details when I purchased my groupon. Asana house was not in a place to fufill orders when promised and even gave away my juice cleanse and left me and other customers waiting an hour outside their store even though they said they would be at their store at the agreed time.

    However, I have bought other groupon/living social deals that were great! Example: Applegate farms ice cream special! The kids who work there are really helpful! 🙂

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