When Steve Hepokoski used his first Groupon coupon at W.A. Frost in St. Paul, he surreptitiously slid it under his plate.
"It felt awkward using a coupon at a restaurant with linen tablecloths and an extensive wine list," said Hepokoski, 52, an optometrist from Maple Grove.
After using a few more daily deal coupons at places such as McCormick & Schmicks, Pittsburgh Blue and Uptown Cafeteria, he got more comfortable with the process: "Now I just lay it on the table as soon as we sit down."
For Hepokoski and others, the embarrassment of pulling out a coupon, especially at fine restaurants, appears to have gone the way of beef Wellington and baked Alaska, thanks to ubiquitous website deals and even a new service that allows the discount to be kept between the host and the restaurant. Coupons are even being clipped, printed or displayed on smartphones by a group that has been the most resistant in the past -- young adults.
Eighty percent of 650 college students polled by CampusDibs (www.campusdibs.com) said they were willing to use a coupon while out with friends. But there are limits: Only 36 percent said they are willing to use a coupon on a first date, according to the social commerce site.
"I couldn't use a coupon on a first date," said Brian Jacobson, 26, of Minneapolis, adding that he'd wait until the relationship was stronger before pulling out a "Buy One, Get One Free" coupon.
While Jacobson, a law student, worries that a coupon could make a first date a last date, many women say it's no big deal.
In a study by Match.com, 46 percent of women said it would be fine if their date used a coupon to pay for a date. The real turnoff? Cheap tippers, according to the study.
The culture has changed, said Jill Cataldo, an extreme couponer with a syndicated column called "Super-Couponing Tips." "There's no shame in being mindful with your money," said the Chicago blogger. "The stigma of using coupons is gone."
Kelly Perkins of Minneapolis realized that her boyfriend wasn't buying the no-shame-in-coupons thing, so she took matters into her own frugal hands. She brings the coupons when they go out. Most of the time they split the bill, but sometimes the boyfriend picks up the tab. "I bring coupons so we can afford to eat out more often," said the 28-year-old marketer. Perkins ignores the pleas to leave the coupons at home, but she does wait until the bill arrives before showing the coupon. "He thinks we'll get bad service if the server sees we're using a coupon."
Under the table
Some marketers have found a way to hook reluctant users with covert coupons.
"There's a niche for people who want to save on their restaurant bill but want to do it discreetly and anonymously," said Dave Ostlund, president of National Restaurant Marketing in Greenwood. Via a new service, he's found a way to help out the guy on a first date or the businessperson trying to impress a client.
ReservePerks (www.reserveperks.com) saves diners 30 percent off their total bill if they make a reservation through the site. The discount is applied to the bill, but only the server and the bill payer know about it.
Several restaurants, such as Santorini in Eden Prairie, Sunsets of Woodbury and Wayzata, and Murray's Steakhouse, Northeast Social Club, Joe's Garage and Rinata in Minneapolis, have signed up for the program, which is still in its testing phase.
At ReservePerks, members register free at the website, and then pay $10 to make a reservation. An online calendar shows which days and times are available, limited mostly to weekdays and early and late dining. If a reservation is made, the restaurant gets an e-mail and the server applies the discount without prompting. Although the discount is never mentioned, the member might have to fess up if an aggressive friend, boss or parent steals the check.
When John Douglass of Minneapolis and his wife, Julia, dine out, she typically brings the coupon, not him. They have not used ReservePerks, but John said he likes the idea of saving 30 percent without having to put a coupon on the table.
Be fair at tip time
Although they might disagree about the best way to save at a restaurant, the Douglasses don't cheap out on the tip. "We both used to be servers, so we know better," said John. They tip 20 percent on the pre-discounted amount.
Local restaurant owners say that there will always be hard-cores who tip modestly and order only enough to satisfy the coupon minimum -- two entrees and two waters, no appetizers or desserts.
But that's changing as coupon redemption expands to all age groups, said Stephanie Shimp, co-owner of Blue Plate restaurants such as Highland Grill, Edina Grill, Scusi and Three Squares. "People are spending more than the face value of the coupon now," she said. "Servers are happier."
In this economy, people like to brag about the deals they get, said Naomi Williamson, co-owner of Sanctuary restaurant in Minneapolis. Customers who are new to using coupons in restaurants almost feel a responsibility to use but not abuse them. "People tell me they like to use a coupon for a restaurant that's new to them," she said, "but they also tell me they tip on the pre-discounted bill and spend more than the coupon amount."
For Perkins, eating out with the help of coupons allows couples more freedom to have conversation and not sit in front of the TV.
"I think that's a big reason why we do it so often," she said. "After a long day of work it's nice to get out and chat about our day, have a bite to eat and usually a beer."