As I sat in the Applebee's booth surrounded by old women wearing gloves in 80-degree weather, my heart pounded. Mandy Moore's "Only Hope" from the movie A Walk to Remember played over the restaurant's speakers.
This was my only hope.
Applebee's promotion for the month of March is the flailing franchise's latest Hail Mary: Patrons in Texas can bring in any gift card from anywhere and use it toward their bill. Wow, Applebee's sounds kind of desperate, is what you might be thinking. Any gift card from any place? Even Chili's?
Apparently so. "All 67 Applebee’s in DFW, Houston, Austin, Waco, East Texas and surrounding locations are accepting the coupons and gift cards," according to a press release from Applebee's. "The Applebee’s offer is for up to 50 percent off of food purchases with any paper/plastic/printed coupon or gift card."
So I tested it. My friends and I ordered grilled chicken breast, mac and cheese with honey pepper chicken and a Triple Chocolate Meltdown. The total, with tax, came to $31.28.
When the bill finally came, we handed over three gift cards: two from Starbucks and one from a fro-yo place in Lubbock. We didn't know the amount on any of them, but we were pretty sure the Starbucks card had a $0 balance.
The waiter took our cards and lifted them in the air to signal the manager in the other room. She walked over, saw the cards and exclaimed, "Ooh! Starbucks!"
She sat down at a nearby table and pulled out her cellphone. To our surprise, she started calling the numbers on the back of the gift cards to verify their worth. One by one, she put them aside and my heart beat faster. Does that Starbucks gift card really have $0 on it? Is that fro-yo place in Lubbock even open anymore? Will this manager put us in Applebee's jail where we will be forced to eat bad mac and cheese and listen to Mandy Moore until we've admitted we tried to play the system?
As she walked back toward our table, I nervously gulped my free water. One Starbucks gift card had $0 on it, she announced, and we pretended to act surprised. She didn't look angry, but it's hard to tell. The other Starbucks gift card had $7.53 on it, which earned us a $3.76 discount. The phone number for the fro-yo shop was disconnected, so she took the $10 scribbled on the card in red Sharpie as honor code and took another $5 off the bill. After factoring in discounts, our $31.28 bill cost $22.52.
So there it is: You really can bring in any gift card or coupon, even from businesses that don't exist anymore, and 50 percent of its total will be taken off your bill. If you've got a 20 percent off coupon for a couch at Nebraska Furniture Mart, that means they'll take 10 percent off your bill, even if it expired six months ago.
But what happens to the surrendered gift cards? "I don't know," our server said, noting that the coupons and gift cards are sent to Applebee's corporate. "Maybe they make it rain with gift cards."
Derek Farley, president of 150 PR, the public relations firm behind the promotion, didn't offer much insight.
"We are currently undecided on what we will do with any live cards," he says. "We are considering several options, none of which we will discuss until we make a firm decision."
The day after my discount Applebee's visit, I tried my luck again at the location at Belt Line and Plano roads. I ordered a Dr Pepper and mac and cheese with honey pepper chicken again, but hold the honey pepper chicken. The taste did not improve with the omission. I overheard a couple order Jell-O shots. It's 1 p.m.
I ate the barely palatable food in the name of journalism. When the bill came, I pulled out my coupons: One for $2 off a McDonald's Double Quarter Pounder with cheese and a bunch of Target coupons for produce.
The server informed me that, since I was mixing gift cards and coupons, I could only use one. I chose the coupon for 25 percent off tomatoes, so I received 12.5 percent off my meal. A lot of customers have been taking advantage of the promotion, the server said, but the discounted prices haven't hurt his tips.
Before you decide to use that expired Tom Thumb coupon to get a discount on your franchise fare, be aware of the rules:
- The promotion cannot be used for alcohol.
- It can't be used in conjunction with existing Applebee's deals, including their Monday specials, lunch specials or happy hour.
- The biggest discount you can get is 50 percent off your bill.
- You can't use any other gift card or coupon while also using an Applebee's coupon.
The promotion ends March 31. Good luck, and may Mandy Moore guide you on your quest.