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It's January, and you may be stuck with a restaurant gift certificate

Gift-certificate holders are often left with nothing after a closing.

Sometimes restaurants close abruptly.
Sometimes restaurants close abruptly.Read moreiSTOCKPHOTO

Every year, the cold winds of January blow through the restaurant industry.

With the Christmas-season rush over and the prospect of a bleak winter ahead, many restaurateurs decide to close.

Employees are put out of work, vendors scramble to settle their accounts, and — quite frequently — customers are left with gift certificates, especially if the shuttered restaurants have no other locations.

Louie's Old Mill Inn, which opened in July 2016 in Hatboro, on Jan. 2 announced that its last day had been New Year's Eve. Customers messaged the business' Facebook page last weekend, offering not only regrets about the closing and asking for refunds but also questioning why the restaurant had sold gift certificates as recently as Dec. 23 — only eight days before the shutdown.

"I don't need to answer that," co-owner Lynda Clauser told a reporter who had inquired about the timing. "I'm taking care of what I need to take care of." She then hung up.

Restaurateurs often do not disclose impending closings to prevent staff defections. Some, like Baril near Rittenhouse Square, which closed over the holidays, had no unaccounted gift certificates, its former owner said.

Although Louie's customers have been promised repayment — the restaurant phone is 215-675-6455 — gift-certificate holders are often left with nothing after a closing.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office said it would investigate when a business suddenly closed without honoring recently sold gift cards or gift certificates, and encouraged anyone who wished to complain by emailing or calling 800-441-2555.

If a restaurant files for bankruptcy, someone with a gift certificate is a creditor and can get in line to collect, but it's highly unlikely he or she will be compensated.

Protect yourself by buying from established restaurants with more than one location and by redeeming as soon as possible.

Saving it for a special occasion? A free meal is a special occasion.