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Sometimes, finding a great hamburger, pasta dish or glass of wine just isn’t good enough. In this deal-crazy world, it’s also important to get a bargain. Enter Foodcaching, a new mobile application that turns restaurant bargain-hunting into a game, modeled after a treasure hunt.

Developed by former Microsoft general manager Davide Vigano, Foodcaching is just getting off the ground in Seattle. When I kicked the tires on the iPhone app (it is also available on Android) this weekend, there were only a handful of restaurants listed. (Primarily Italian joints, which isn’t a surprise since Vigano previously served as vice director of Microsoft’s Italian unit).

Foodcaching works on several levels. Consumers who download the free app can set their preferences to receive targeted deals, or they can show up at the restaurant’s doorstep to cash in on special discounts.

For example, the 2100 Bar and Bistro in the Seattle Marriott is offering $1 domestic draft beers and $2 microbrews for Foodcaching users. Customers redeem the coupon by showing their phone to the waiter or manager at which time they enter a PIN number into the phone. Alternatively, you can ask the restaurant for their Foodcaching QR Code and snap a photo of the barcode.

As you visit more restaurants or share your experiences via Twitter or Facebook, you accumulate what’s known as “Food Cash.” A leaderboard displays the top earners. (I am moving up the charts, so watch out).

The concept seems pretty cool, especially for those who operate in a more spontaneous manner. Unlike Groupon or Living Social, which require users to prepay for coupons and do some advanced planning, Foodcaching allows people to check out deals when they want them.

In fact, Vigano — who hails from Italy and previously spent 23 years in various roles at Microsoft — said that Foodcaching essentially eliminates the “middleman” approach played by the more popular coupon providers. The former manager in Microsoft’s Health Solutions group came up with the idea after thinking about the obesity problem in the U.S., wondering if he could create a mobile game to encourage users to find high-quality food.

He started asking his friends in the restaurant business what they thought of the idea, and they directed him to the pain point many restaurant owners face in marketing their businesses.

Davide Vigano

“It became quite clear very quickly that restaurant owners and managers do not have an effective way to market their offerings based — not just on discounts — but rather on value and dining experience to consumers,” Vigano tells GeekWire. “They have been leveraging the same marketing and promotional tools for generations. Or when they gravitate towards traditional discount marketing with the same old coupon publishers or the new ones such as Groupon and Living Social they quickly realize that these tools simply do not work for them.”

In fact, Vigano cited a recent study from Rice University which showed that 32 percent of businesses lost money on Groupon promotions. Restaurant owners fared even worse, with 42 percent reporting unprofitable Groupon deals.

Foodcaching is going after restaurant owners who are looking to attract new customers through innovative marketing campaigns, and those who want to tout more than discounted food or beverages. The upstart claims that restaurant owners can upload new deals in a matter of minutes, with participating restaurants in the Seattle area including Rover’s and Luc Restaurants, La Vita e’ Bella Ristorante, Luciano Ristorante, Mondello Restaurant and Osteria La Spiga.

Vigano is just starting to turn on the marketing horsepower, and he’s hopeful to start reaching out to new customers via email lists and social networking.

“We have a lot of work to do but I am truly excited about the caliber of partners that we have been able to attract and the buzz that we have already created out there in such a short amount of time,” he says.

Here’s a closer look at how it works:

John Cook is co-founder of GeekWire, a technology news site based in Seattle.

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