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Weekly Alibi Speed Eater

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Coupons.

By Nick Brown

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  When I was a little kid, I gave my father what was perhaps the cheapest, most insulting Christmas gift in the history of mankind. I got an old, brown shingle out of the back yard, drilled a hole in it for an eye, and sawed a 3-inch slot in the side for a mouth. It was a dual function gift. In my childish mind, you see, it was not only a disturbingly artistic depiction of the human profile but also served as a handy dandy letter holder. I remember my father's disgusted expression as he tore off its careless tin foil wrapping. "Oh," he said, "you gave me one of my shingles." My perception of the expertly crafted Grecian bust shifted and revealed that I truly had given my father a shingle for Christmas. A timid explanation of its function died somewhere around my soft palate, and I silently vowed never to do anything stupid again. Not long after that I asked my teenage sister whether she sat down or stood up when she went to the bathroom.

Now I'm an adult with a strange fixation on fast food. While I realize that giving everyone moldy Big Macs this year would probably alarm my therapist, giving fast food gift certificates might be an equally insulting option. I've had success selling my own gift certificates for back rubs. When people try to redeem them I simply write "expired" on the certificate and say "good day to you" until they leave. It makes for a weird five minutes but puts some cash in the kitty. The fast food industry, though, would never try those tactics, and just about all of our national favorites are willing to play the gift certificate game.

McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's all offer booklets of five $1 gift certificates for $5. You do the math. These three giants of the industry have their franchises so homogenized that you're almost guaranteed to be able to purchase gift certificates from any location you hit. With other chains you may not be so lucky.

Arby's franchises in particular were uncertain about their collective gift certificate stance. "We're stuck on stupid," explained one Arby's worker as she desperately rifled through her boss' confidential files. At a different franchise, the manager refused to make an impromptu gift certificate on a napkin for me.

Taco Bell has Border Bucks in booklets of five for $5. They tend to be offered only around Christmas and high school graduation time, but no major promotion of the Border Buck is scheduled. Vernon, an Edward G. Robinson sound-alike at the national help line in Miami, confirmed their existence when the local branches were unable to do so but also warned that not all locations carried them.

Kentucky Fried Chicken sells certificates in $1 and $5 denominations. When KFC puts you on hold, you get to hear a recorded message from a breathless vixen rambling about the virtues of KFC, as if they've thrown you onto a chat line with other customers.

While Sonic has no gift certificate policy in place, they do have a couple of interesting options. The "Be My Guest" card, usually reserved for customers whose orders were screwed up, can be sold for any dollar amount. Perhaps of even greater interest to shameless misers is a "Holiday Savings" coupon booklet provided free with all regular orders. It features real savings on many enticing favorites.

Sadly, some restaurants have found that gift certificates are simply not profitable. Long John Silver's has dropped out of the game because, according to one worker, the low sales couldn't offset the printing costs. On another tragic note, both 7-11 and Circle K workers deny the existence of gift certificates for their respective places of employment.

Nevertheless, a wide variety of cheesy coupon options lie at your fingertips. Imagine the look on my father's face as he unwraps a coupon. Sort of a metaphorical shingle, if you will.

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