It began with a date.

It was November 2003 in New York City, and Jeff Winner was seeing a girl in the East Village. They’d been dating for a month, and Winner wanted a clever way to choose a new restaurant for dinner. He scribbled restaurant names on index cards, shuffled them, and presented them to his girlfriend. That’s when the light bulb went off in his head.

A couple of days later, Winner went to dinner with his friend Mark Boyett. They met at Duke’s Original Roadhouse in Manhattan because Boyett had a gift card there, and as the two chomped on burgers, Winner explained the index card concept—what if someone created a 52-card deck of New York City restaurants as a marketing ploy to eating out?

Boyett liked the idea. “What if each card had a monetary value?” he suggested, thinking of why they were at Duke’s. And City Shuffle was born: a $20 deck of cards to local restaurants or bars, with each card offering $10 off a purchase of $30. The cards debuted in 2004 and City Shuffle continues to put out a new deck annually.

City Shuffle and similar ventures prove paper couponing isn’t dead; it’s simply evolving. Consumers are responding to drinking and dining adventures, such as playing “pick a card” from a deck or filling a booklet with stamps as they redeem deals.

For a dining establishment, this cerebral evolution is a risk-free marketing tool: it’s typically free to join, so there are no out-of-pocket-expenses, and venues only pay if it works—which means new faces are walking through the door to redeem a deal.

One company in Denver took a traveler’s approach to offering deals, via the Passport Program launched there last summer. Like City Shuffle, its gist is simple: customers purchase a 3-by-5-inch booklet, shiny and sleek like a passport. Inside are two-for-one drink specials at 44 to 52 establishments per city, and the passport deal is accepted from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.

“The idea stems from restaurant week,” says PJ Hoberman, co-founder of the Passport Program. “We wanted to provide the opportunity for consumers to go out and try a bunch of new bars for much cheaper than they normally could.”

Last year in Denver, the Passport Program printed 2,000 passports with 50 restaurants and bars signing on. This year, it will print 4,000 in Denver. It’s also expanding to four cities, including Nashville, Tennessee, and Brooklyn, New York. It will retail for $20 in each city.

After Labor Day, the Passport Program surveyed consumers and dining venues to measure results. Hoberman says even the lowest-visited venues in the Passport program redeemed 100 to 150 passport deals over the three months, while the five most-visited venues clocked 700 to 900 Passports coming through the doors. “Those obviously can’t all be regulars, so that’s a definite spike (in sales),” he says.

Two restaurants that will return to the Denver Passport are Vesper Lounge and Russell’s Smoke House, both operated by Bonanno Concepts restaurant group, which owns 11 brands in Colorado. The group chose those restaurants to join the Passport last year because they were newer concepts and Bonanno wanted to see a bump in its bar business, according to its marketing director Lauren Hendrick. Pleased with the results, Bonanno Concepts has four restaurants in the Denver Passport this year.

City Shuffle’s deals are redeemable year-round, and Boyett says restaurants often see two to five cards per week. “It tends to be a pretty sweet spot,” he says. “Restaurants are not getting so many that they’re saying, ‘Oh, my god, thousands of dollars of discounts last year!’ They’re almost always wanting to sign up for another year.”

Unlike Groupon and other mobile deal vendors, these firms find value in staying offline. City Shuffle does its strongest business each autumn, when people buy the decks to give as holiday gifts. “We’re an actual, real product that people can put wrapping paper around and stuff down a stocking,” Boyett says.

Hoberman similarly says printing the Passport is advantageous for restaurants and sponsors. “This Passport is in purses and pockets and cars all summer long,” he explains, “so it’s not just a one-impression-and-done [exposure]. They’re constantly looking through it.”

The Passport will offer deals at both new and returning venues in Denver this summer; likewise, City Shuffle annually changes its deck to include different restaurants, as well as old favorites. Both Boyett and Hoberman emphasize the importance of locality in growing their companies. Boyett is adamant not to include chain restaurants in the decks, and says he wants to support the local economy and drive business to privately owned establishments, often chef-owned and family-operated venues.

Feature, Marketing & Promotions