There may be no such thing as a free lunch or dinner, but there is a way to get up to 50 per cent off the cost of a meal in almost 150 restaurants across the country, two-thirds of them in Dublin. Early Table, an Irish-owned website, is offering reservations at restaurants with discounts of between 25 and 50 per cent on their menu prices for tables at lunchtime and in the early evening, up to 8pm in some cases.
The Early Table booking platform was set up last summer by James Lenehan, chief executive of the Win Win Digibreaks Group, which he describes as a “customer engagement and incentives business”. Its core activity is discounted or customer loyalty reward hotel stays, such as the SuperValu Getaway Breaks campaign, which it has been running since 2016.
Road testing the platform last week, I signed up on Thursday and made a booking for the same evening. Before I could see what restaurants I could choose from, I had to register for a free membership, and to make a reservation, I had to purchase credits from Early Table. These cost from €2 each, reducing to €1.50 if bought in volume. One credit is needed per diner for each reservation.
There were plenty of options available, even for a same-day booking, and I could have booked an early dinner with 50 per cent off the food bill at Asador or Paulie’s Pizza, in Dublin 4. In the city centre, I could have had a table at Smokin Bones in Castle Market, any time from 3pm to 8pm. A 25 per cent discount was available the same day at Richard Corrigan’s The Park Cafe; Firebyrd in Ranelagh and The Guinea Pig in Dalkey, among the 84 options presented to me within Dublin.
I was too late to snag a discounted table at Amuri in Chatham Street, but the Italian restaurant, favourably reviewed by Irish Times restaurant critic Corinna Hardgrave, had availability at lunch and dinner on subsequent days.
I booked a table for two at 6.30pm that evening at Ouzos, a seafood restaurant in Dalkey, Co Dublin. There were no restrictions on what we could order from the menu, which included high-value items such as lobster and steak, other than a stipulation that we each had to order two courses and a drink.
My bill, for a generous seafood platter to share, scampi and chips and a filet mignon with shoestring onions and chips, came to €43.50, instead of the full menu price of €87. Wine and water were charged at the full price.
Our meal appeared to be the same quality and quantity as was being served to customers paying full price. So, with costs rising across the board, how can restaurants afford to cut prices by as much as 50 per cent?
“We recognise that it’s quite a big ask for the restaurants to give as much as 50 per cent off,” Lenehan says. Early Table does not charge the restaurants to use the service, or retain any percentage of the spend. Revenue comes from the €2/€1.50 credit required per diner per reservation, which must be purchased online in advance of booking. Credits are sold in blocks of five (€10) to 20 (€30).
So far, we have been very happy with it, most customers use the fact they are getting a discount on the food to treat themselves to that better bottle of wine or some nice cocktails— Shane Mitchell
“What we’ve done is put control into the hands of the restaurant owner, where they can look at our back end platform and say, okay, between 5pm and 6.30pm, we’re going to give 50 per off, because that we’re quite empty at that stage, and we’re struggling to fill seats,” Lenehan says.
Shane Mitchell, director of Ellerman Hospitality, which operates Lennan’s Yard in Dublin 2 and Asador in Dublin 4, has listed Asador on Early Table since August. The restaurant specialises in meat and fish cooked over fire, with an all-day menu offering snacks, small plates, main courses, sides and desserts. An 8oz fillet steak from the a la carte menu will set you back €46 at full price.
“There is very little margin, if any, on the food for us, but we are viewing it as a marketing exercise,” Mitchell says of his experience with Early Table. “We engaged with them to showcase our new menus, but also to spread the word about our opening hours. We now open all day. The small plates have been popular in the early evening.”
It is an initiative that is proving successful at Asador. “Our view was that the capacity was there (loads of tables free from 3-6pm), the staff were there, and we had something to shout about. We are just looking to generate positive word of mouth and to that end Early Table has been a success for us, with repeat business,” Mitchell says. “So far, we have been very happy with it, most customers use the fact they are getting a discount on the food to treat themselves to that better bottle of wine or some nice cocktails.”
Lenehan says that Early Table has almost 20,000 subscribers and just under 150 restaurants signed up “We are really happy with the level of engagement we’ve had to date in terms of some of the nice restaurants around town.”
In addition to Dublin, the website has listings in Cork, Cavan, Donegal, Galway, Kildare, Kilkenny, Limerick, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Roscommon, Sligo, Tipperary and Westmeath. “We are gradually starting to build out the nationwide offering, and there has been quite a lot of interest around the country. The idea is to get to 500 to 600 restaurants, over the course of the next 12 months.”