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Posted on Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 5:55 a.m.

Jerusalem Garden, Earthen Jar owners try to survive slowdown from Ann Arbor's Library Lot construction

By Janet Miller


Ali Ramlawi, whose family owns and runs Jerusalem Garden on South Fifth Avenue in downtown Ann Arbor, says business is suffering because of the construction of a massive parking garage nearby.

Janet Miller | For

For Ali Ramlawi, there are plenty of things to worry about as the owner of a downtown Ann Arbor restaurant: The rising price of commodities, the economy and stiffening competition.

But what the longtime owner of Jerusalem Garden hadn’t banked on was construction of a 700-space underground parking lot on South Fifth Avenue that began 13 months ago and won’t wrap up until late this year or early next.

The project, especially since the 300 block of South Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic in September, has hurt business, he said.

While Ramlawi has seen receipts increase every year since 1990 — and sales doubled in the two years following the 2008 remodeling — year-to-year sales have dropped 20 percent to 25 percent since the road closed in August, he said.

December was especially bleak: “It’s very stressful,” he said. “I am aging quicker than Obama.”

Next door, at Earthen Jar, the story is the same. Business was so bad last month that Pushpinder Sethi, who owns the vegetarian Indian buffet restaurant with his wife, Gurcheran, said Earthen Jar might not survive.

They said they've seen a 20 percent to 30 percent decline in business. Sethi said he couldn’t wait another year for the road to re-open.


Earthen Jar, an Indian restaurant, and Jerusalem Garden, which specializes in Middle Eastern food, are the only two private businesses that front the 300 block of South Fifth Avenue, which is closed for the construction of a parking structure.

Janet Miller | For

“Maybe it will be time to move on,” Sethi said.

The couple has owned the restaurant for 13 years.

But it’s not as simple as blaming the decline on construction and the road closing, said Susan Pollay, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority.

The economy is playing a role, and many downtown restaurants and retailers are struggling, she said.

“Throughout downtown, it’s been a very, very hard winter,” she said.

Still, Pollay said, the construction project plays a role: “Construction is definitely impactful."

Complaints to the city and the DDA have gone unanswered, Sethi said.

“The city does not listen to us. (Ramlawi) has been quite aggressive about what is happening, but he is not reaching anyone,” Sethi said.

At the least, Sethi said, the city could offer a tax break while their businesses are being affected by construction. Ramlawi said he has met with Pollay but left frustrated. He calls the project “a debacle.”

Pollay said the DDA has responded: New lighting was installed near the two restaurants and they were given free parking validation stickers to hand out to customers. Ramlawi is allowed to temporarily park on South Fifth for loading, and the road has been kept plowed.

Signs were added along Liberty Street announcing that the businesses were open, and the city’s holiday lighting was installed on the trees in front of the restaurants.

“Every time we’ve heard they wanted something done, we’ve done our best to do it,” Pollay said.


The South Fifth Avenue parking structure project is estimated to cost about $50 million. Ann Arbor issued a bond on behalf of the DDA for about $49.3 million, while the DDA committed to putting up $8.4 million in cash. The DDA reimbursed the city for its bond issuance costs of about $480,000 and also paid an overhead fee of about $1.5 million. The DDA is expecting to pay off the debt using parking system revenues.

  • October 2009: Surface lot between Fifth Avenue and Division Street, south of Liberty, closed.
  • February 2010: Construction begins.
  • September 2010: South Fifth Avenue between East Liberty and West William streets closed to traffic. Used as a staging area for the project.
  • August 2011: Original completion date. That has been changed to December 2011 or January 2012, when South Fifth will re-open and finishing touches of the structure will be completed.
  • February 2012: Structure expected to open.

While lunch traffic remains relatively strong at Jerusalem Garden, the Monday through Thursday dinner crowd “has fallen off a cliff,” Ramlawi said. “Commuters used to stop by on their way home, park in the lot next door and run in. That crowd is not showing up.”

The actual decline is likely far worse than a 20 percent to 25 percent drop, Ramlawi said, because some of the loss has been absorbed by a 25 percent increase in sales for University of Michigan catering.

Ramlawi said he’s weathered other downturns, from recessions to the drop after 9/11, but he’s never seen his business hit so hard. He said a couple of good years after a remodeling job created a small cushion. He’s determined to stay open.

“I’m a survivor,” he said.

In an effort to offset some of the downturn, Ramlawi said, he moved forward last month with plans to sell some of his restaurant’s products wholesale.

“I wanted to diversify the revenue stream,” he said. He’s hoping the retail exposure will also help market the restaurant.

Jerusalem Garden hummus is now being offered at five locally owned retail outlets in Ann Arbor, including Arbor Farms and Morgan & York. Ramlawi said it’s a modest, self-financed effort and that he will move slowly. He hopes to introduce a second product this year.

Ramlawi's father, Ribhi, opened Jerusalem Garden in 1987 in 350 square feet of space with a small counter. It was mostly carryout in those days. Ramlawi took over in 1993, just months after he finished high school, when his father died.

The business expanded, adding dining space in 1996, and even more dining space during an extensive remodel in 2008. The restaurant now has 1,100 square feet and 22 employees.

Jerusalem Garden shifted from 80 percent carryout to 75 percent dine-in and now has nine tables. In warm weather, it can nearly double capacity with patio seating. But Ramlawi doesn’t know how the construction project will affect his patio business.

The two restaurants are the only two private-sector businesses that front the 300 block of South Fifth.

Janet Miller is a freelance reporter for



Sat, Mar 26, 2011 : 7:16 p.m.

For those who are interested, I've started a Facebook group to rally support and get the word out to locals who like these two businesses to make sure to patronize them frequently during this time of construction. Please look for us on FB: Keep Earthen Jar and Jerusalem Garden Alive! <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>


Thu, Mar 24, 2011 : 8:47 p.m.

It doesn't help that the construction company has bagged all the meters on two (unclosed) adjoining streets, so , basically, there is nowhere to park, even briefly, for at least two blocks, from the restaurants.


Fri, Mar 25, 2011 : 10:38 a.m.

Agree. Why are so many meters bagged? And what's with continued storage of bldg supplies on other streets?


Tue, Mar 22, 2011 : 3:20 a.m.

These two restaurants are the kind of businesses that make Ann Arbor what it is. My daughter moved to the West Coast, but whenever she visits JG is the first place she wants to go to eat. These are unique architectural spaces, human-scale type businesses that belong in Ann Arbor. The Valiant building is so out of place here. Some narcissistic architects' way to get recognition by building something unusual. People will remember it, but not fondly. I hate that tippy-looking building that they want to build. Ungainly! Ugh!


Tue, Mar 22, 2011 : 1:52 a.m.

Mmmm. Thanks for the reminder. I've stayed away because it is too far to walk in the cold, but it's getting warmer. Hang in there Jerusalem garden, I'm only one, but I'll be back soon!


Mon, Mar 21, 2011 : 4:21 p.m.

first they tear down Village Corner and now they're screwing over JG and Earthen Jar, and probably going to build that ridiculous conference there any beloved local business that is not subject to the whims of developers wanting to throw down enormous ugly buildings?

Stuart Brown

Mon, Mar 21, 2011 : 2:56 p.m.

Another point for Ann Arbor voters to consider: the millage that pays for street repairs is coming up for renewal and the fund that receives the revenues from this millage has a surplus of about $20 million dollars (enough to fix the Stadium Street bridge). Since Ann Arbor has the third worst roads in Michigan while excess funds have been piling up in the street repair fund; voters should not approve the millage renewal when it comes up soon. When the city uses street repair funds for street repair then voters should approve a renewal; only then! Since the street repair fund is one of the infamous buckets that Chris Taylor says can't be used by the general fund; voting down this renewal should not affect fire services which is funded out of the general fund. So what gives with the $20 million surplus in the road fund? Why would the city not want to spend road repair funds on road repair? One can only speculate with this administration, but if one assumes past behavior is a guide to future behavior, one can assume the city is using the surplus to either dress up the city's credit rating with the bond rating agencies (so the city has plenty of money to blow on more white elephants like the hole next to the library) or that Hieftje has some grand scheme in mind to build roads to nowhere while the rest of the city drives on cratered, moonscape roads.


Mon, Mar 21, 2011 : 1 p.m.

People who have been following the DDA and more importantly City Council's rush to contract with Valiant on a downtown conference center have observed that no real effort has been made to seek citizen input, examine economic viability studies, conduct research on repercussions to existing hotels or analyze future tax nightmare scenarios in an effort to protect the citizens of Ann Arbor. So how would they truly know or care about the effects on these two wonderful Ann Arbor restaurants struggling to survive near the construction zone. Unfortunately, I see many more wonderful Ann Arbor properties and characteristics threatened if we cannot put a stop to this unwanted and unneeded hotel development. Since we cannot boycott the DDA or city council to protest, I would like to propose a &quot;Buycott&quot; instead for Jerusalem Garden and Earthen Jar. Let's all make an effort to support these restaurants until the parking structure is completed and the conference center is defeated.

Jon Saalberg

Mon, Mar 21, 2011 : 12:14 p.m.

Easy for Susan Pollay to say anything about this sad situation - she doesn't have to worry about her business being seriously affected by poor city choices - we have an unnecessary project that was put forward without any thoughts for necessity, directly causing the ruin of two well-liked Ann Arbor restaurants. Maybe the city could come up with an emergency rescue package for these businesses? And as if the debacle that is Ann Arbor's very own Big Dig isn't enough, we now have the specter of an even more unnecessary convention center, waiting in the wings. Maybe it's time to recall our city officials who supported the Big Dig, and who are considering support for a convention center.

Tairy Greene

Mon, Mar 21, 2011 : 6:58 a.m.

This continued construction will poorly affect ALL businesses close by. It will force many local businesses to close, and make way for only chain restaurants. I hope A2 only likes the taste of Applebees and TGI Fridays.


Mon, Mar 21, 2011 : 4:09 a.m.

Anyone who has been by the restaurants can see that the construction has seriously messes up the exposure to the public. Most cities would have provided compensation beyond 'parking slips'. That's pretty much a joke.


Mon, Mar 21, 2011 : 2:56 a.m.

It would be wonderful if Earthen Jar would consider offering a catering service (or at least publicizing if they already have one).


Mon, Mar 21, 2011 : 4:50 a.m.

They do sell their food by the tray. I don't think it is cheap but I am sure you could work something out for a big event.


Mon, Mar 21, 2011 : 2:07 a.m.

it's very heartening to see so much support for J Garden and Earthen always there are some haters taking a few minutes out of their day to inject their daily dose of unbalanced cynicism...but overall i'm glad to see that people understand the value these businesses provide to our community. and let's be clear...that value goes WELL beyond the delicious, freshy, healthy and incredibly affordable food they's restaurants like these that literally help brand Ann Arbor as the amazing place that it is. JG is an institution in this town. and anyone who knows ali understands that the financial underperformance is certainly not for a lack of effort...he's one of the hardest working guys i know. ali ramlawi is a gift to this community and he deserves the support and respect of Ms. Pollay and the entire DDA...not her clear attempt to cast aside his concerns as petty and inconsequential. its embarrassing and entirely shameful.


Mon, Mar 21, 2011 : 1:28 a.m.

I credit J.G.'s lentil soup as single-handedly pulling me through this winter. But I live close enough to walk. Would hate to say goodbye to that place.


Mon, Mar 21, 2011 : 1:05 a.m.

These two business should do what Ann Arbor Brewery did to open the corner sell large gift cards for a large infusion of cash. I would buy a $120 gift card for a hundred bucks or something of that nature. People I meet from all over Michigan love earthen jar and JG it would be a major loss for us if these business went under.


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 8:54 p.m.

With apologies to Jazzy Veggie, Earthen Jar has the best vegan food in Ann Arbor. I love the food there &mdash; and I'm a carnivore. I will be very sad (and more than a little angry) if construction of the parking project deprives Ann Arbor of this jewel. And, while I eat there somewhat less often, I feel much the same way about Jerusalem Garden. Please, folks, do your part to support these businesses. The food's great &mdash; you won't regret it. If either restaurant closes, Ann Arbor will be diminished.


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 10:43 p.m.

what happened with the city lawsuit that j garden filed? is this information available?

Tom Joad

Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 7:25 p.m.

Poppycock. Those two businesses have ample room in front for customers to access. The construction site is next door. You are either a big fan of either place or you're like me...tried it and haven't gone back. My friend kept raving you get a ton of food for $5, no you get an average-sized meal for around $7-8, not including a drink. Like any place in town there are the regulars and the rest of us who vote with our wallet. Earth and Jar is nothing special.

say it plain

Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 8:55 p.m.

oops, of course i meant a sudden 30% *decrease* in those who feel as your friend does, @Tom Joad, that these businesses are worth visiting. Yes, there are regulars of the very committed sort, and then people who *also* vote with their wallets, and do sometimes elect to visit these long-standing parts of the Ann Arbor community, but for whom the dirt and dust and noise and hassle of this vast construction project has mostly trumped their desire to visit them! Or to spend too much time in that section of downtown at all really...

say it plain

Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 8:49 p.m.

And suddenly there is a 30 percent drop in the numbers of people who find these businesses 'nothing special' lol? It's not just about the room, of course, it's about the dust and dirt and ick factor for food businesses in particular. The construction site is *next door* lol? Honestly, with comments like this one has to question....

Vivienne Armentrout

Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 5:34 p.m.

These are just two examples of &quot;collateral damage&quot; that will happen to our downtown if the hotel and conference center are constructed. They will create a dead zone, increase traffic, and most cruelly take up much of the new parking being constructed at taxpayer expense. The current draft Letter of Intent (Council will consider adopting a revised version on April 18) asks for the city and DDA to award 350 of 650 spaces in the new structure to the hotel and conference center, and hints at some restrictions on public access to parts of the structure. What impact will this have on business in this area? These along with many other concerns have led a number of us to form a group, Citizens Against The Conference Center (<a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>. Meanwhile, I'm going to make a special effort to stop by Jerusalem Garden more often. Their tabbouleh is a real salad.

Long Time No See

Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 5:12 p.m.

Susan &quot;let them eat cake&quot; Pollay continues to not care about anything other than her beloved parking structure. It causes traffic problems to shut down a major street for a year and block off parts of other major streets? Her response: &quot;you know there are other roads in town, right?&quot; Your business is failing because of the ugliness of construction zones and inconvenience caused to customers? &quot;We let you park somewhere temporarily, customers can park further away and walk through a construction site, and we made these pretty orange constructions signs to promote your business, why are you unhappy?&quot; Really, are the owners of Jerusalem Garden and Earthen Jar supposed to get down on their knees to thank the DDA for it's generosity? Susan doesn't understand that she is helping to destroy Ann Arbor, and she doesn't care who gets hurt along the way. To anyone who points out problems, she just responds by telling us we're just a bunch of stupid whiners. What does it take to abolish the DDA?


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 5:10 p.m.

Upon reflection, it seems that there is an equitable and honorable solution. According to the story: &quot;'s not as simple as blaming the decline on construction and the road closing, said Susan Pollay, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. The economy is playing a role, and many downtown restaurants and retailers are struggling, she said. "Throughout downtown, it's been a very, very hard winter," she said. Still, Pollay said, the construction project plays a role: "Construction is definitely impactful.&quot; Fine; let DDA establish what the average loss percentage at downtown restaurants was this winter, subtract that from the losses incurred by neighbors of the construction, and reimburse them for the rest of lost business. This seems fair; perhaps there are better solutions, but simple justice should require some form of restitution,


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 4:59 p.m.

Whatever the wisdom of the parking structure, this is a shameful situation and the city as well as DDA have to take some responsibility. Ms Pollay's response, if properly reported, is simply a disgrace. To have a massive project threaten two or three important small local businesses, and I include the guitar store as well, is a very troubling matter. This is particularly ugly because the people who run all these businesses have been such wonderful local citizens. Sometimes such things are inevitable, but there should be better remedies to counter the bad effects of construction. DDA has too much money on its hands as it is, and it should act immediately, without any delay, to counteract the ill effects of this work. I also agree that the prospect of even more construction on the site, especially the ill-chosen and irresponsible push towards an unnecessary conference center, pose an even bigger threat to the survival of these businesses. Is this how the powers that be that would turn our downtown and its nearby areas into some horrid suburban concrete mass support local business?


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 4:41 p.m.

Macabre - it's not take out only. They have seating in the back, and when the weather is nice, they also have the patio. I wonder if .J. Garden has considered delivery? I know they already do catering. Maybe that's a way to offset for the people who don't want to deal with the parking situation? Though, to be fair, there is a parking lot behind the post office that is just as easy to get to as the old parking lot.

Macabre Sunset

Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 5:09 p.m.

I know. It's take-out only for me, because the staff makes it such a noisy, unpleasant atmosphere for sitting down. You feel like you're in a bus terminal. Definitely one of those places you wish were better run, because the food is so good.


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 4:27 p.m.

If Earthen Jar closes, I'm moving out of Ann Arbor.

Macabre Sunset

Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 4:24 p.m.

I enjoy Jerusalem Garden food, but the space has always been unpleasant and noisy. It's take-out only. So I'm a bit surprised business has changed all that much - maybe there's a perception that parking nearby is difficult. I used to use the library lot and I hate those new parking non-meters.


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 6:34 p.m.

Jerusalem Garden is not take-out only.

say it plain

Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 3:38 p.m.

And also, perhaps it's been a 'very very hard winter', especially in that part of downtown, in part because people have decided it would be wise to avoid that entire area of Ann Arbor! I would normally have gone to Seva at least a couple of times in the last year or so, as well as hung out at the AADL and then off to get some snacks at Jerusalem Garden and/or Earthen Jar, but since the nasty construction has started I avoid the whole area, unless I'm approaching from the State Street/S. University direction, in which case I might venture to the Maynard Street parking structure or find some on-street parking a couple blocks away, never really a problem!


Fri, Mar 25, 2011 : 4:49 a.m.

I know it was to prove a point about the impact of the construction site, but you just admitted that you don't go there as much. I'd stop complaining about the construction site when you're the one letting it get in your way. If everyone could be okay with walking a little bit longer, perhaps we could help them out.

say it plain

Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 3:48 p.m.

oops, I see that Susan Pollay has done something of an admission to that effect, sorry to repeat it as though 'new'. I guess I was thrown by her description of the construction as &quot;impactful&quot;. Is that a word lol? Is that lawyer-ese for avoiding the use of a verb (e.g. &quot;the construction HAS HAD IMPACT on business...&quot; ), which might be seen as admitting harm done to the businesses who will be driven out by this boondoggle of a garage?! The DDA can spend nearly a million dollars on terrible streetscape-destroying wayfinding signs, but has no way to help businesses through a downturn caused by their 'projects'?

say it plain

Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 3:29 p.m.

It's so sad, how the people who don't have the proper &quot;connections&quot; in this town get screwed. This garage can only benefit them if they can make it through this period, and clearly the DDA and the City could care less. This block of Ann Arbor was one of the few left that didn't feel corporatized and pretension-filled, with neither the wannabe-pretend-nyc-cool vibe that can permeate some of Ann Arbor nor the student-ghetto-seven-eleven scene that some other parts have become. Too bad the current 'stewards' of our City have such poor vision.


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 2:51 p.m.

My partner and I frequent J. Garden regularly and, in fact, went there last night! I remember last summer, on the weekends, I thought it was relaxing to sit on the patio and not hear all the traffic that you normally hear, sitting on the patio! J. Garden has the best Middle Eastern food in Ann Arbor, in my opinion, and it would be a shame to see it go. I wish the city WOULD give these two businesses a tax break. It isn't these businesses' fault that the city made this choice - why should they have to pay the price???


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 2:45 p.m.

This is most definitely NOT the way a caring city should treat LOCAL merchants--by driving them out of business!


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 2:40 p.m.

this temporary negative impact will become a permanent positive impact for business. will they be complaining of the increase foot traffic once the construction is finished? also, what ever became of the lawsuit against the city of ann arbor (us taxpayers) at the beginning of this project from the plaintiff jerusalem garden?

Matt Roney

Fri, Apr 1, 2011 : 2:47 p.m.

It'll be difficult to complain about the increase of foot traffic if they've already closed.


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 7:11 p.m.

You don't know that because the city never did the research that would prove foot traffic will improve the economic situation of the neighbors of the lot.


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 2:37 p.m.

The underground parking struture was complete overkill to resolve the parking situation in this area.


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 3:35 p.m. must be a carpenter cuz you just hit the nail on the head!


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 2:48 p.m.

What parking situation? The one invented by the DDA and the city so they could funnel huge amounts of taxpayer dollars to their friends?


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 2:36 p.m.

The Produce Station on South State is now offering Jerusalem Garden hummus in containers and soon on it's new and remodeled salad/hot food/breakfast bar!


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 1:14 p.m.

We still go to Jerusalem Garden and try to show support by walking there. But the local crowd is not going to do it for them. It's when people are here and driving or walking by and they notice the place I think. But it is tough for all the restaurants now. I can't believe how many stores are changing in town. Jerusalem Garden has some great fresh food.


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 12:56 p.m.

Jerusalem Garden owner Ramlawi: . . . "sales have dropped 20 percent to 25 percent . . . " Earthen Jar owner Sethi: . . . "Earthen Jar might not survive . . . 20 percent to 30 percent decline in business. . ." Sadly, the parking construction is likely just the first phase of their problems. If a commercial structure is placed atop the completed parking garage, there will be another two-year plus construction period. Then, the new resulting building will tower over their small buildings, casting its giant shadow over two tiny neighbors that just happen to be in an historic district. Their new adjoining neighbor to the south will be a service alley populated by dumpsters and frequented by garbage trucks. It is easy to imagine that values of these neighboring existing businesses and properties, as well as the value of the historic district, have been negatively, and irreversibly altered by this city/DDA project. I am very sad to hear how little the city has helped these owners. Minimally, they could have suspended property tax during construction period, while making further restitution for income lost beyond said gesture. Or, they could have purchased the buildings, and paid for relocation of the businesses. Some might perceive that the city has taken the value of these neighboring properties without just compensation. If this proves to be true, it could be perceived as an illegal act. We could see litigation . . . with the city eventually owning the properties after being ordered to buy them. In this scenario, local business is lost, historic district is destroyed, and the city loses property from it's own tax base. The precedent for the city acquiring a neighboring property during construction and expansion of municipal use is the Tios property. And how about those orange signs erected by the DDA as the solution? Pitiful. . . Just pitiful. I am very sorry to hear of the hardships endured by Ramlawi and Sethi!


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 12:26 p.m.

Earthen Jar's food is so wonderful... please finish the construction quickly!


Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 10:21 a.m.

One reason why some people have stopped patronizing the Earthen Jar is becasue of the price they charge per lb of food. One takes just two scoops of food, and bam!!!! the bill comes to $12.00 or $13.00, plus tax. One can get a good, decent sized lunch at one of the Indian buffets for $9.00


Fri, Mar 25, 2011 : 4:41 a.m.

Two scoops of food?? Come on, I go there quite often and pile my plate so high I can barely eat it all, and it usually comes out to about $11.00.


Mon, Mar 21, 2011 : 1:09 a.m.

The quality of food and 98% of it being vegan make it will worth the lb price and is comparable to most ordered dishes at Indian restaurants. The locations with lower price buffets I don't usually give a return visit due to bland or low quality quick food.

Dr. I. Emsayin

Sun, Mar 20, 2011 : 11:05 a.m.

It would be a good idea for Earthen Jar to lower its prices, or put less liquid into some of their dishes which makes the food much heavier when weighing per pound. There must be other creative ways to draw customers unhappy with price per pound: a buffet at lunch? An all you can eat for one price option with different size plates available for different options (like Mongolian BBQ), an afternoon special say at 2 pm. Lots of creative ideas possible including coupons, punch cards, etc.