Shady-Looking Deal Site Is Posting Half-Off Deals That Restaurants Didn’t Agree To [Updated]
So you've all heard of Groupon, right? Have you heard of Mobile Spinach? Neither had we until we caught wind today that they had posted 50-percent-off meal deals at Boulevard, Delfina, and Mama's. But the restaurants in question tell us they never agreed to the deals. The site purports to have exclusive local deals, all the same "$5 for $10 of ___" at places like Gary Danko, Cotogna, and other high-profile San Francisco restaurants, but when Grub Street contacted some of the restaurants to inquire, reps all said the same thing: They knew nothing about Mobile Spinach and say they weren't even contacted by them.
Nancy Oakes at Boulevard says, "What a scam!" and insists that Boulevard did not agree to such a thing. A representative from Delfina says likewise: "We definitely didn't agree to that." The deal for Delfina, which says, "$5 for $10 Delicious Pasta," is the featured deal at the top of the site as we write this (see screenshot above). At Mama's, Felicia Sanchez McDonnell says she has already contacted the company, where an agent told her that she "must have accepted their terms by e-mail." She insists she did not.
Another source claims to have tried to use one of these coupons earlier this year at a restaurant downtown that refused it and had to appeal to Mobile Spinach's CEO for a refund. (The source apparently received one.) How long has this been going on and how can it even possibly work?
Setting aside the oddness of offering "$5 for $10 of delicious steak" at Boulevard (where you can't get a steak for anywhere near $10), the lack of customized deals, and the fairly uniform claim that there are "Only 10 left to buy!" for each deal does seem suspect.
We note that in the process of contacting restaurants and reaching out to Mobile Spinach CEO John Vitti, the Boulevard deal has since disappeared from the site, but the Delfina one remains. We have not yet heard back from Vitti with a comment. The San Mateo–based company, for their part, was accredited by the Better Business Bureau as of last September, however we think that just means that they paid a fee and they've agreed to resolve all customer complaints quickly. It appears that the company has launched restaurant deals only in S.F., however there is an option to "subscribe" to a mailing list in just about every city in the country.
Below, a 2010 interview with founders Anthony and John Vitti, who say that the premise of Mobile Spinach is "to match up businesses who have something to promote with members of the public who want to learn about those businesses on their cell phone." But how exactly do you go about promoting businesses who never asked to be promoted and selling coupons they won't accept? Curious business model, that.
Update: Grub Street followed up with Ms. McDonnell at Mama's who said that a regular customer had alerted her that they were the featured deal on the site this morning, and she immediately called Mobile Spinach to ask them to remove it. She says she spoke to what sounded like "a college kid sitting around in his boxer shorts taking calls," and that he insisted that someone at the restaurant must have clicked an "accept" link in an email that was sent to them. "I assured him that I managed all the email inquiries and had not accepted anything and also questioned the legality of it," says McDonnell. "How could they offer a deal without my signing any sort of contract with terms, etc.?... Totally ridiculous. Anyway, they took it down immediately after I talked to him." They obviously then replaced the Mama's deal with Delfina, who also contacted them today and had themselves removed, and the featured deal is now at Pera. Gary Danko also appears to have removed themselves from the offering, but Cotogna remains.
Furthermore, Richmond SF blogger Sarah B. chimes in to note that she spoke directly with Mobile Spinach and "they basically admitted they put offers out 'on spec' and after they get a lot of responses, they THEN approach the restaurants to rope them in."