When the restaurant Block & Grinder suddenly closed both of its Charlotte locations a few weeks ago, I knew what would come next: Emails from people who still had gift certificates, wondering what they could do.
The hard answer: Not much. Owner Jed Kampe hopes to find a way to do something for people stuck with gift certificates, although he says it may take a few months.
“I don’t know how, what or when,” he said. “The last thing I want anybody to think is that I don’t care. I do plan to make amends. I don’t know what it will be.”
The hard truth, though, according to the Better Business Bureau, is that businesses don’t actually have to do anything.
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“They don’t have an obligation, no,” says Tom Bartholomy, president of the Better Business Bureau of Southern Piedmont, which includes the Charlotte area.
If the business simply closes, there may not be many assets left to hand out. If it declares bankruptcy, the customer is an “unsecured creditor,” but a small one, and has to get in line behind the larger creditors. A $50 or $100 gift certificate is way down the list of priorities.
The question comes up a lot, Bartholomy says, particularly after the holidays and right after Mother’s Day, the two biggest times for giving restaurant meals as gifts.
And it isn’t just restaurants, of course. Stores are popular sources of gift cards, too. When the kitchen supply store Cooking Uptown in Elizabeth closed in 2012, The Observer received a dozen emails from people who had either bought or received cards, some for close to $300. The store’s owner never responded to repeated attempts to reach her.
For businesses, gift cards are a lucrative source of income. Fewer than half of all gift certificates sold ever get used, says Bartholomy.
His best advice: Use gift cards as soon as you get them. The life span of a restaurant can be short and the end can come without much notice. If a restaurant has multiple locations, you can sometimes use your gift at another spot, but a place with only one or two locations doesn’t have many things it can offer you.
At Block & Grinder, Kampe has been keeping the names of everyone who has contacted him. The best way to do that is to send a message through the restaurant’s Facebook page.
Closing a business is painful and complicated, he says.
“I just lost everything,” he says. “It’s not a quick process, it’s not a fun process and it’s certainly not a cheap process.”