The meeting probably shouldn’t have gone well. Joe Pierro plunked a flip phone down on the table before Dave Gasparine, who was about to explain Epoxy, a new smartphone application that would help the restaurant owner better track and reward loyal customers without using a paper punch-card system.
For many restaurantgoers, the punch card is a big reason for frequenting a certain business. But while still effective for business owners, it comes with its share of flaws.
Punch cards can be manipulated with hole punchers. People often forget them at home, and a business can keep issuing new cards to a single user who later cobbles together enough punches among several cards to redeem for a free meal. Plus, there’s no way to track the person that is using a punch card.
Pierro, owner of Market Grille Cafe, a Greek restaurant that has been in business since 2006, has taken the more traditional paths of print advertising and showcasing menu items at food festivals to bring in customers. A 40-year veteran of the restaurant business, Pierro wasn’t in the mood for solicitors almost two years ago when he sat down with Gasparine, but for some reason he took the meeting anyway.
“I think it was some good timing for Dave. I was skeptical. People are calling all the time and offering stuff. I have to be really selective about who I talk to,” he said.
But Pierro bought into Gasparine’s concept. Epoxy simply digitizes punch cards by having consumers download the free Epoxy app then scan a QR code at the business for a “punch” after buying a certain item. With the digitized cards, the 15,700 registered Epoxy users can then get access to notifications from the restaurant as often as twice a week.
Sometimes it’s simply a “thank you” note from the owner. Other times, coupons or an added “punch” to the digital punch card may come through.
The notifications are not like email blasts and can be easily turned off by the customer.
It’s a function that’s good for the client-business relationship, as many people avoid and delete email blasts before opening them, Gasparine said.
“You (the business owner) can have a great email campaign concept but it can fail because people just delete them without opening them,” he added.
Business owners can spend $50 a month or buy a year upfront and get two months free to be part of Epoxy. There are currently 64 businesses on the Epoxy system. Among them are breakfast favorite Egg Works, health food stop Greens and Proteins, north valley’s Mexican restaurant Leticia’s Cocina and B Sweet Candy Boutique in Tivoli Village.
The concept of digitizing the punch cards, even from a consumer standpoint, immediately made sense to Carlos Gardea, head of marketing for Leticia’s Cocina.
“For me personally, I always leave them at home. With the app it eliminates all that carrying cards around,” he said.
Beyond convenience, the app also brings marketing analytics to business owners who can gain insight into age, gender, home ZIP code and a few other details about their customers. Gardea likes the data, because it helps him see who’s coming and going and at what times. It then allows him to tailor offers or coupons toward slower hours, too.
Gasparine came up with the idea for Epoxy when he owned two Tropical Smoothie Cafe restaurants in town. Punch cards were costly and there seemed to be few ways to prevent fraud and track the users, he recalled. He also dabbled in technology, such as text campaigns and Groupon offers. But both encouraged deep discounts that would force him to operate at a loss.
“You see these shows where people are getting hundreds of dollars in groceries for pennies on the dollar. Well that’s not really good for the business. The goal (for Epoxy) is to pay attention to the loyal customers. Focus on those customers that care about your business, that mention it to friends and come in all the time,” he said.
Pierro’s early skepticism was rooted in a bad experience with a company offering a text campaign that offered gimmicky high percentage discounts that he would never be able to honor.
“I didn’t even last 30 days with them. I felt it was dishonest. I’m a straight shooter,” he said.
The app has seen some negative reviews from users who say the deals aren’t good enough. Gasparine actually sees those reviews as positive.
“Those are reviews of the deals, not of the business or the app,” he said.
Epoxy has been available for nearly two years. After the first year, Gasparine took about eight months to focus less on sales and marketing and more on gathering input to make the product better. He recently hired a former Apple designer.
“We were really surprised at how people were frustrated in their ability to find menus and hours and information about the business,” he said of some of the input he was getting.
In addition to menus and basic restaurant information, Epoxy now offers some incentives for consumers as well. If a user suggests a business to a friend through a text, that user gets a free punch when the friend tries the restaurant. And the friend who tries the business is rewarded with a digital punch card that already has five punches on it. There are business reviews, referred to as “stickies,” menus, addresses and other business information in the app pages.
For Arlene Bordinhao, who recently signed on with Epoxy, customers were constantly asking if she had punch cards. Only open for about eight months, her marketing budget was thin, and the idea of printing a bunch of punch cards did not appeal.
“What sold me was the analytics,” she said. “I felt like he (Gasparine) wasn’t just out to make a buck. I felt like he could help my business.”
For the record, Pierro now owns a smartphone — and he loves it.
For more information on Epoxy, visit epoxyapp.com.