Popular 'Our Town' gift card matching program returns -- but they're going fast!

FLINT, Michigan -- Marge Murphy, owner and chef at Cork on Saginaw in downtown Flint, has participated in the Flint and Genesee Chamber’s ‘Our Town’ Gift Match Program twice. Both times, she’s sold out of available gift cards in rapid speed.

“Both times, we sold right out,” Murphy said. “The first time, they were all gone in about four hours, and this time, they were all gone by Saturday (April 10).” 

The program is part of a partnership between the Chamber, the Consumers Energy Foundation, and the Michigan Municipal League. Nearly 40 businesses in Flint and Genesee County are participating in the program, which allows customers to double the value of gift cards purchased at their locations for a limited time. The first ‘Our Town’ program ran in February, and the second launched on April 9.

“Every single restaurant who participated in the first round jumped at the opportunity for the second time,” said Andrew Younger, executive director of the Flint & Genesee Chamber. “Almost every restaurant sold out within a week (the first time) and some as quick as a few hours.”

This time around, the program has expanded to include more businesses. Participants include independently owned restaurants, retail shops, and event and fine art venues who are Chamber members. A full list of participants is available online. The web page for the program is updated frequently to reflect businesses who have sold out. Younger doesn’t anticipate supplies lasting more than a week or two, so it is recommended to visit establishments and get gift cards as soon as possible.

Gift cards must be purchased directly from the participating business to receive the match. They are limited to one card per customer, per business, and matching cards will be available only until supplies run out.

Small businesses, particularly restaurants, have been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The vaccine rollout has given hope nationally that a return to some sense of normal life is on the horizon, but in Michigan, COVID-19 cases are surging again. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently advised that indoor dining should be avoided in Michigan, and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Michigan should close things down again

Even if the state doesn’t return to pauses in indoor dining, many people are still hesitant about it, and purchasing gift cards is one way to continue supporting businesses you love in the meantime.

“It is an absolutely ideal way to support businesses to help them stay afloat,” Younger said. “Gift cards give you an incentive to go patronize them when you feel safe, and it also gives the restaurants a sense of what their future business is going to be. It puts a placeholder in your mind to go back there.”

Murphy said the bulk of people who purchased gift cards from Cork were regulars, but the program has resulted in a few new people stopping by the establishment. 

“It’s such a generous program and it has been great to put immediate money in our pocket,” she said. “It has primarily been our regulars, but they’ve brought a few new people with them.”

Cork is one of many restaurants in Flint that has been creative to keep diners safe during the pandemic. They have an outdoor tent in the alley next to the restaurant that they’ve used, and they’ve also had live music on Wednesdays and Fridays on an outdoor stage. They’ve also down to-go and virtual events.

As Michigan continues to navigate its way through the vaccination rollout and trying to regain control of the latest case surge, Murphy has hope that with summer approaching, some return to more normal activities will be possible.

“Please keep going to your local favorite restaurants and supporting small businesses,” she said. “We’re very clean, very careful, and conscientious and want people to feel safe here. Summer’s almost here and patio season is coming!”

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.

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