Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

What to do with a restaurant gift certificate

Use it. Now. Here's why.

Restaurant gift cards are a popular holiday purchase.
Restaurant gift cards are a popular holiday purchase.Read moreMichael Klein / Staff

So you received a restaurant gift card or certificate. Visions of good times on a friend’s dime are dancing in your head.

The first thing to do: Use it right away. Don’t tuck it into a drawer to wait for a special occasion. You just got free money. This is a special occasion.

Given the constant churn of the restaurant scene, countless customers end up holding useless pieces of paper and plastic when the issuer goes out of business.

The one-off, independent restaurants — those mom-and-pop bistros that we love to support — can have thousands of dollars in unused gift-card revenue on their books when they shut down. Refunds are unlikely. Here’s one scenario, albeit a rare one: On Christmas Eve 1994, Odeon, a once-popular Center City bistro, was selling gift certificates — and it was closed by New Year’s Day. The owner left town.

Chain restaurants are usually a safer bet. But what happens when your nearby location closes, and the closest one is 200 miles away?

Regional companies that issue one gift card that can be redeemed at all its restaurants — such as the 39-unit Starr Restaurant Organization (which has 20 restaurants in Philadelphia and Atlantic City alone, including Parc, Buddakan, and the Continental) and Schulson Collective (which has a dozen in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, such as Sampan, Double Knot, and Izakaya) — can be a smarter buy.

Most cards are used quickly. A study by Paytronix found that about 70 percent of cards are cashed in within six months. That still leaves a lot of money out there.

The law is on the consumer’s side, but let’s be real here. If a restaurant files for bankruptcy, a gift-card holder — technically a creditor — can get in line to collect, but it’s highly unlikely he or she will be compensated. Notable exceptions: When the Garces restaurants were sold at bankruptcy in 2018, the corporate buyers agreed to honor outstanding gift cards.

The laws are clearer regarding certificates that have expired. In Pennsylvania, businesses must turn over the monetary value of gift certificates to the state within two years after their expiration date. If certificates do not have expiration dates, businesses must turn over the money from unredeemed certificates within five years of the issuing date. The state treasury holds the money in its unclaimed-property files.

New Jersey law requires gift certificates to be valid until redeemed unless conditions and limitations are fully disclosed.

The upshot: If a restaurant is out of business, consider its gift cards to be worthless. Well, almost worthless. They make handy ice scrapers.


If you’re buying a gift certificate:

  1. Buy from established restaurants, preferably from ones that have more than one location.

  2. Encourage the recipients to use the gift certificate as soon as possible.

  3. Consider taking them to dinner yourself, unless they are wretched dining companions.

If you’ve received a gift certificate:

  1. Use it right away.

  2. If the restaurant has closed, hold onto it. In a bid for goodwill, the restaurant that takes over the space may honor it, but is under no obligation to do so.