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Buyatab.com Lets You Give the Gift of Fine Dining This Season

Matias Marquez, co-founder of buyatab.com.

Stuck for a last-minute Christmas gift? Why not pick up the tab for your loved ones at a Vancouver restaurant? Two enterprising business students have made it as easy as clicking a mouse.

Ross St. George, a student at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, and Simon Fraser University student Matias Marquez have joined forces to launch Buyatab.com, a new service that, should they succeed, may one day do for restaurants what Ticketmaster does for concerts and Travelocity does for air travel. The concept is simple -- go to the Buyatab site and search by location or restaurant name, choose your restaurant, calculate the size of your "tab" (they include a calculator to help you figure it out), enter the name and email address of your recipient, choose a theme (Christmas, Valentine's Day, birthday, Mother's Day, etc.) and press "send". The recipient then prints the gift "card" and presents it at the restaurant where it's accepted as equivalent to cash. No worries about coupon restrictions or expirations.

So far, 34 Vancouver-area restaurants have signed up, with more being added daily, Marquez says.

The idea for the site came about because St. George, a student at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, had wanted to treat his father to a meal while the elder St. George was in Chicago.

“In order to send him out to dinner he had to find a restaurant in Chicago, then call the restaurant, and to pick up his dad’s tab he had to fax over his credit card, fax over his ID and sign a disclosure. He had the option of mailing a gift card, but if he’d done that, by the time it got to his dad, he would have been back in Vancouver,” Marquez recalls.

Marquez could sympathize. He’d been trying to buy gift cards for people on his Christmas list during a snowstorm in 2008. A long bus ride, and two hours in the cold made him think there had to be a better way.

“We talked about this and said, you know this is very inconvenient for the customer, who is the one paying. We thought about how movie tickets, concert tickets, airline tickets, they're all printed on your computer and taken with you. Buyatab.com is a similar concept: you can go online, you can write a personalized message for different occasions like Christmas, Valentines Day or anniversaries, you send it to the recipient by email or you can print it off and give it to them yourself. Companies can use it for employee awards programs as well. It's instant.”

Marquez and St. George researched the concept and discovered that no-one else was doing anything similar for restaurants. “There’s a few other websites where you can go online and buy a coupon, but you’re not going to want to send your mom a coupon for her birthday.”

After working long hours with a web design company to design the site, and getting the payment system in place, they began signing up restaurants.

“That was the hardest part,” Marquez laughs. “It’s difficult getting an appointment with a restaurant owner - they have sales people calling on them all day -- people selling them tablecloths or cutlery or food -- and you're just another of those calls.”

But persistence paid off and several high-profile Vancouver restaurants have signed up, including Monk McQueens, The Lift and Wild Rice. Geographically, participating restaurants range from Whistler to White Rock.

Future plans include expanding the site’s reach across Canada and getting major chains such as The Keg, Milestone’s and Earls signed up. “We're not billionaires yet but it looks like the idea is working. We're selling tabs every day so it's proof that people are willing to buy them," Marquez says.

“It’s the gift that doesn’t get lost.”

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