On Tuesday, October 23, some fellas from Buffalo will be hosting a launch party at the Round Corner Cantina for a product they’re bringing to Pittsburgh that’s sure to generate a lot of buzz as the holiday season approaches. Their concept is called City Dining Cards and they’re celebrating its third successful year in Buffalo. Other cities they cater to include Albany, Boston, Philly, Providence, Rochester and Syracuse. What began a few years ago as a one and done promotion to stimulate local spending in Buffalo has blossomed into a lucrative endeavor for the team behind Block Club, a hyperlocal, Buffalo-based design, marketing and publishing studio. In order to learn more about City Dining Cards, we had a chat with Sean Wrafter, their regional sales manager.
There are three easy steps to explain how the cards work:
1. Spend $30 or more at a featured restaurant. A list of participating restaurants can be found here.
2. Redeem your City Dining Card with payment of your check. There are 52 cards in each deck.
3. Receive $10 off the food portion of your bill. So, as long as you use two cards your $20 investment is worth it! This batch of cards expire at the end of 2013.
Sean established a relationship with Block Club before his employment. “I started with the company in this position, but I met the owner of the company and we had a mutual friend. They had moved offices. I do carpentry work and I built all the desks and shelving for them. I became friends with Patrick and Brandon, who are the founders of Block Club. Last year when the business was expanding they were looking to hire someone, so it all just came together.”
Block Club contains three distinct branches. They produce a quarterly magazine and offer branding, marketing and design services in addition to the City Dining Cards, which is the largest division of their business. We started as a free local magazine, which Patrick started at age 20. It moved from that to doing design work for clients and advertisers in the magazine. And that grew into full-fledged creative marketing services and we’re one of the top ad agencies in Buffalo now.”
While creating a deck of cards that offer local restaurant discounts might not seem like a logical expansion of a design and publishing firm, to Sean it makes perfect sense. “It was actually really organic. The dining cards came from an idea where we wanted to help all of the local businesses we worked with as a magazine and ad agency. We wanted to put together something that was going to stimulate local spending during the holidays. We sold five or six times what we thought we would during our first year.”
So why Pittsburgh? “First of all, Pittsburgh has a great local food scene. It’s really inviting and you have just a good local scene in general. We felt it was very accommodating and matched our ideals. Also, it’s close. We want to stay in the North East at this point. It’s cost-prohibitive. Everyone wants us to do Dining Cards Portland or Dining Cards Austin, which would be great, but I can get in my Fiat – have you seen our Fiats? – I can get from Buffalo to Pittsburgh in my Fiat in under four hours.” Being from Buffalo, we wondered what places an outsider is partial to. Everything is fair game when you’re new to an area. “One of my favorite places to hang out is Espresso A Mano. I go all over the North East, and that place is legit. I’ve had some really great meals at Round Corner Cantina. I really love Square Café in Regent Square and D’s Six Pax & Dogs across the street. Abay is awesome. Root174 – Will and Keith are great. I love that place. I also really like The Porch at Schenley, it’s the same people who own Eat n Park, but it’s like a really good new American upscale eatery. I like Harris Grill too. That place – the menu is crazy, but a lot of fun. It’s always packed. There’s always something going on there. I love the energy. I like Gooski’s too. That’s one of my favorite places. I love dive bars.”
For not being from or living in Pittsburgh, Sean certainly knows his local eateries, and for good reason. The selection process for restaurants who make the deck is pretty hands-on. “You can do as much research as you want to before you go to a city, but the best way is to talk to the people who live there. So I went on Yelp. I went and found the restaurants on Yelp that had good reviews. I went on eatPGH, which is a local food blog that we thought was awesome. We do cross-promotion and read about a bunch of the restaurants they went to. I spent a lot of time talking to local people and finding out where they like to eat and why. And those are the places I want to get on my deck because I want to have a deck of restaurants that everyone loves. That’s the point.” And the restaurants’ response? “It’s interesting to see the progression. This is our third year in Buffalo and our first in Philadelphia. Restaurants have been approached by a lot of new things in the past couple of years that they didn’t have to deal with before – Groupon, Restaruant.com, Living Social, so they’re a little resistant at first. In Buffalo where we’ve been for 3 years now, there’s a waiting list. People are calling up and getting in arguments about who can get into City Dining Cards.”
City Dining Cards also makes sure to give back to the communities they have a presence in. “Every market we’re in we pick a different local charity. This year we’re doing food banks. So in Pittsburgh we’re donating to the Pittsburgh Food Bank. They end up getting about 5%. Over eight markets that’s tens of thousands of dollars. I like the idea of food banks because we deal with food, and we deal with people who distribute food and who make food so we have a lot of mutual connections. I think it’s really important for us to donate to a charity where we see where the money goes. We can get a count at the end of the year of how many pounds of food we’ve donated. It’s not like going through a lot of red tape, it’s actually going to help someone.”
Of all the cities Sean visits he says Pittsburgh is one of his favorites. “In Buffalo we make a lot of parallels between us and Pittsburgh because we’re both rust belt towns that really hit a wall when the steel industry collapsed in the North East. In Pittsburgh you produce all of these college graduates who are ready for the workforce and then you produce jobs for them. In Buffalo we have a lot of students and then they finish school and have nowhere to work so they have to leave. I think Pittsburgh is by far the friendliest town I’ve been in. By far. I really enjoy it. People are just friendly and easy to deal with and talk to. And they make eye contact when you walk down the street, which you don’t get in Philly or Boston. I feel welcome everywhere I go. Everyone is nice to me, as long as I don’t say anything about the Bills. The bridges, the rivers – it’s so scenic I can really see why they film movies there. I went to PNC Park for the first time a few months ago and I was blown away at the backdrop and the whole thing, going over the bridge. I couldn’t really describe it and my iPhone fell short of what my eyes saw. You have a really beautiful city.”
Thanks, we think so too Sean! If you’d like to meet Sean, sip on some complimentary bevs and eat some Round Corner Cantina grub this Tuesday the 23rd from 6-8PM, then stop on by the City Dining Cards launch party. They’ll be giving away packs of the decks so you can test it out before buying them for all of your friends this holiday season!