Here's How Restaurants Really Feel About Customers Using Gift Cards Right Now

When COVID-19 started to take hold in the U.S., the National Restaurant Association put out a plea: Buy our gift cards, please, to help us stay in business. Customers responded, buying more gift cards than some places sell even during the holiday season (via Eater San Francisco). Restaurant owners at the time said gift cards were a vital cash infusion. Casa Pearl restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia shut down completely, but used gift card sales to keep paying its employees (via WY Daily). Chef Edouardo Jordan, who closed two of his three Seattle restaurants at the start of the pandemic, told The Washington Post that restaurants can use gift card income as seed money for reopening. 

If the gift card push seemed desperate, that's because the threat to restaurants was very real. By late July, more restaurants had closed permanently than any other type of U.S. business (via ABC News). Temporary and permanent closures forced 8 million restaurant employees out of work (via Delish).

Now, several months into the pandemic, restaurants — especially those that are small and independently owned — are still in financial trouble as they reopen their doors. A lot of patrons, eager to get back to their favorite eatery, might be a little strapped for cash themselves — but they still have those gift cards they purchased back in March. So what is the etiquette? Is it rude to pull out our gift card when restaurants still need cash today?

Restaurant owners say it's OK to redeem gift cards now

A Buzzfeed advice column answers this question differently for the mom-and-pop restaurant than for national chains. If it's a chain, go ahead and cash in that gift card guilt-free. The big companies can absorb the cost, and employees need workable hours, which customers will help guarantee. At a small, independent restaurant, it's best to hold onto your card for a while — or redeem it and buy one or two more for friends.

"The great thing about gift cards is that they can be redeemed at any time," Casa Pearl's owner told WY Daily. He seemed happy to hear some of his customers say they would wait a few months before redeeming their cards.

On the other hand, San Francisco restaurateurs reassured Eater it was OK to use the cards now. They were thankful for the help they received from gift card purchases back in March and April. Cards also help now because they create repeat customers, and a lot of people spend more than the card's value and pay for the rest in cash (via National Restaurant Association).

The folks at Eater offered a couple more bits of advice, based on what restaurant owners told them: If you know a particular restaurant is hurting financially, hold onto the card a little longer. Finally, make sure to tip your servers separately, and generously, with cash. Consider that big tip their reward for going onto the front line of the pandemic just so we can enjoy dining out again.