Atlanta restaurants put apps on menu

Woodstock real estate agent Trevor Petty drives inside the Perimeter for merrymaking, and he often relies on a smart phone application called ScoutMob to guide his explorations.

ScoutMob's half-price discounts helped him discover the beer and seafood at 5 Seasons Brewing on Marietta Street, for instance.

"It's paper-free wherever you happen to be," Petty, 36, said of the ScoutMob app. "If you're in Midtown or downtown, you can just pull over and try a restaurant. It's convenient, and it's green."

Discounts are just one way smart phone apps are helping people run their social lives. Soon, the enterprising and tech-savvy among us could have a night out on the town armed with just an ID and a smart phone. No wallet necessary.

Thanks to apps slowly spreading around Atlanta, you will soon be able to open and close a bar tab with just your phone. Or spend $1 to buy a friend a drink, be they across the bar or across the country. Or buy and use gift cards to upscale restaurants.

At a growing list of Atlanta establishments, you can earn a free wine or beer by allowing your smart phone to "check in" at the establishment via apps that tell friends where you are. (Yes, this is why those Facebook friends keep telling you where they're dining or partying.

Restaurants need cost-effective ways to boost business, and they want instant results. That has propelled them into alliances with tech-savvy entrepreneurs to attract super-wired young adults with plenty of disposable income. Restaurants must pay to participate in some apps, while others are free for the restaurants but demand fees from customers.

It's unclear whether such apps are the vanguard of a strong, growing industry or a passing social media fancy. Also yet to be seen: whether Atlanta has enough techie diners to make the social media marketing sustainable. In addition, restaurant managers remain ambivalent about discounts even when they bring in a lot of customers, because deals such as those offered on ScoutMob reduce the amount a restaurant makes from each plate.

Still, some restaurants are exploring ways to boost their prominence in the virtual world.

"If you don't get on top of it, you're gonna get left behind," said Bob Amick, owner of Atlanta-based Concentrics Restaurants, which runs TWO Urban Licks, TAP and other restaurants. "In this recession, particularly in a place like Atlanta where there's a bunch of restaurants, you need every edge you can get."

Farmville and Appletinis

Atlanta native William McCullough ran a gaming company and designed a Christian dating Web site before signing up to help manage Bartab, a "gifting" application linked to Facebook. Bartab allows participants in about a dozen markets, including Los Angeles, New York City and Atlanta, to pay $1 to send a drink to their Facebook friends. Those friends then can pay $1 to claim the drinks. If you're feeling anti-social, you can even buy yourself a drink, all managed via smart phone.

Bartab advertises itself as a way for bars and restaurants to generate mass awareness, foot traffic and new customers via Facebook. When your friend buys you a drink through Bartab, the drink and the venue's logo appear on your Facebook page. You then have 90 days to redeem the gift. In Atlanta, the app is available at TAP, Room at Twelve, Lobby Bar and Bistro, One Midtown Kitchen, Hobnob, the Peachtree Tavern, Hole in the Wall and Gilbert's Cafe, among other restaurants.

"We're not encouraging bar-hopping by any stretch," said McCullough. The company says 80 percent of Bartab customers who redeem $1 drinks stay for at least a second drink.

One Midtown Kitchen just started offering wine, ale and shots through Bartab, said general manager John McDaniels. It's gotten off to a slow start, but industry people say that's to be expected.

"It's for very tech-connected people who text," McDaniels said. "They check in everywhere. The Farmville kind of people will love this."

Where's the loyalty?

Erik Maier's Yeah! Burger, a west Midtown burger establishment, just started offering 30 percent coupons to anyone who checks in with Facebook Places, and Yeah! Burger sees between 10 and 15 customers come in to claim the coupon every day.

"We are seeing a good number of redemptions from that," said owner Erik Maier. The power of Facebook Places and similar apps is that people can see where their friends are checked in, he said. "The fact that they're there kind of validates that it's good."

Restaurants are trying to transform cell phones into loyalty cards, giving a further incentive for visitors to become repeat diners. In some cases, such as an app called PlacePunch, restaurants pay to participate.

PlacePunch, run out of Roswell, Ga., checks a range of location-based social networks -- including foursquare, Gowalla, Facebook Places, Yelp and Twitter -- to let restaurant managers know how many times customers have visited their establishments. After a set number of visits, guests get a reward.

TWO Urban Licks offers guests the choice of any beer, wine or dessert under $9 on every fifth check-in. Fast casual chain Fresh To Order started using PlacePunch to offer free beverages, brownies or cookies to guests on every fifth check-in.

"This is rewarding your true fans," said Jesse Gideon, vice president of operations for the Alpharetta-based company. "It does not reward people who come in twice a year. You want to reward your core clientele."

Location-based social networks such as foursquare and Brightkite offer restaurants and other businesses the promise of "right-time, right-place marketing," according to Forrester Research Inc. But the market is still very small: only 4 percent of online adults in the U.S. have used location-based social networks on their mobile phones, with just 1 percent using them more than once a week. The research group said most marketers should wait to test the apps until it's easier to tell which ones will endure.

"The older demographic, they're like, ‘why would you ever check-in?,'" said 27-year-old Dennis Dougherty, who works in public relations and checks regularly at an Italian restaurant near his Chicago office. "There's a generation gap."

One big barrier to the spread of apps like foursquare: Many people don't want others to know exactly where they are.

Foursquare and similar apps bring "an intimate level of sharing that I'm not willing to take at this point," blogger George F. Snell wrote last year in a post titled "Why I don't use foursquare."

The parent company of Carl's Jr. and Hardee's just launched a GPS-enabled app that rewards people for using their iPhones or Android phones to check in at the restaurants. The first check-in and every subsequent fourth check-in earns the user a chance to win discounted and free food, gift cards, Sony electronics and movie tickets. The more a user checks in using the app, the more valuable the offers.

Davio's Northern Italian Steakhouse in Phipps Plaza offers a free sampler to the first five customers of the day who check in on foursquare. The program has been going for a few months, although it's been slow to catch on with the restaurant's 40-something clientele.

"It's directed at more of a younger crowd, maybe," said general manager Claude Guillaume. "I could see my kids being all over that."


Some of the Apps showing up at Atlanta restaurants.

ScoutMob (

What it does: ScoutMob offers one-time discounts -- typically 50 percent to users who download the app on iPhones, Androids or Blackberry phones. Once ScoutMob blasts out alerts on local restaurants that are offering promotions, users can download them and typically have three months to use them. Restaurants pay to participate.

What they're saying: About 10,000 people downloaded a promotion for One Midtown Kitchen, said general manager John McDaniels. From September to the end of November, the restaurant averaged about 900 guests per month from ScoutMob. "We were full every night," he said. A number of restaurant executives in Atlanta said offering fairly hefty discounts was better than having empty seats in the restaurants.

Parish Restaurant saw about 1,500 ScoutMob deals redeemed in a matter of weeks, said general manager Justin Amick. "It really does work," he said. "I'm not sure all these guests will come back, but the whole point of promotions is to get that guest who hasn't been out yet."

TabbedOut (

What it does: Users can open and close bar tabs with a wave of their iPhones or Android phones. TabbedOut is free to download, and users get three free check-outs. After that, it's 99 cents per use.

Why would it be worth an extra buck to pay this way? Consumers won't have to hand their plastic to anyone, enhancing credit card security, said Kevin McKeand, vice president of sales and marketing. Meanwhile, bartenders can focus on pouring drinks. Credit card information is stored on the phone but can be protected via password.

What they're saying: "Pretty cool," said Bob Amick of Concentrics Restaurants. "Sometimes the hardest thing for a restaurant to do is to check someone out and get them out of their chair."


What it does: Users can give and receive gift cards for Buckhead Life Restaurant Group (Bistro Niko, Buckhead Diner, Atlanta Fish Market and others) using an iPhone or Android. The app is free to download. If steaks and seafood aren't your thing, you can trade the gift card through the phone for gift cards at other partners, including American Apparel and Steve Madden.

What they're saying: "This new distribution channel for gift cards will be of value and convenience to our consumers," said I. Pano Karatassos, founder and CEO of Buckhead Life.

How we got the story

Reporter Jeremiah McWilliams hasn't properly utilized all the apps on his BlackBerry, but he is slowly getting more savvy. For this story, he contacted chefs, diners, restaurant managers, technology entrepreneurs and tech analysts to discuss how cell phones are becoming the newest link between restaurants and their customers.