Good news, Black Friday shoppers. Restaurants around the state have signed on to participate in Connecticut's latest consumer protection idea.

Despite the closing of stores throughout the area's retail districts, this is usually a profitable time of year for the restaurant industry. Companies will book space either for a party or an office lunch; families will use restaurants as reunion locations for a nice holiday gathering; people will purchase restaurant gift certificates as presents.

The latter usage is what's in the spotlight now. With the ailing economy affecting retail so heavily, restaurants are hurting. Many are closing. When a restaurant closes, what happens to any unused gift certificates to that establishment? Up until recently, potential patrons were left with a useless piece of paper -- no chance to redeem the value of the gift certificate -- and the gift-givers were left feeling that they essentially threw their money away. It was a lose-lose situation for all involved.

So this week, the Connecticut Restaurant Association (CRA) got a nudge from the state to promote its solution to the problem. Considered the first of its kind in the nation, a state-wide gift certificate program will allow people to purchase general/interchangeable certificates, which can be used at various restaurants throughout the state.

The best part of this idea is that private establishments have volunteered to participate -- they're not forced to, but they realize the value that this initiative can have for both consumers and restaurateurs.

In Fairfield, participation has been slow to catch on, so we hope that more will realize the value of this initiative and sign up. So far, Fin and SBC are the only two restaurants on record with the Connecticut Restaurant Association.

It's a start, but we hope more will sign up. For restaurants, it's a winning situation all around. The purchased gift certificate comes with a check that the patron presents to the restaurant. So for the restaurant, it's like a cash payment. They're also bringing business in from people who might not have eaten there otherwise.

Bob LeRose, owner of Bobby Q's in Westport, was attracted to the program right away and joined the CRA just for this reason.

"What I liked about it was it seemed like the Connecticut Restaurant Association is not making any money on this," he said. Instead, he explained, it is just trying to help its members. "Plus there's the benefit of trying to drive traffic to [CRA] members' restaurants."

And for consumers, you know that when you purchase this gift for someone, it will be valid for as long as the CRA members honor it (expiration terms vary depending on the restaurant).

LeRose said it's just another way that restaurants can be proactive and take steps to ensure that they don't fail.

"We don't want to become victims," he said.

It seems that this program can be extended to a variety of retail industries, so we hope that the state's other industries will work on a similar initiative. Consumers win, businesses win, and in the end, the entire state comes out ahead.

The Fairfield Chamber of Commerce has worked this idea into its holiday shopping initiatives. Its Chamber Bucks are gift certificates in a variety of denominations that can be used at any participating store. The certificates are backed by the chamber and managed by Patriot National Bank.

Visit www.fairfieldctchamber.com or call (203) 255-1011 for more information on Chamber Bucks. Visit ctrestaurantassoc.org to see a list of restaurants participating in the gift certificate program.

This is the kind of thinking we need in today's economic environment.