Clicks or Bricks: Is it greener to buy groceries online?

Who wouldn’t want to cut out all those trips to the supermarket?
Hopefully you’ve already cut way back, with a larger portion of your food coming from farmers markets and other local sources, but you just can’t get everything. There will always be a need for the cans and bottle, cleaning supplies and paper goods that large chain stores offer cheaper and with better selection. We are still left with that most detestable of all household errands—the trip to the supermarket.

It’s misery from start to finish: the parking space in the next county, the shopping cart with a cranky wheel, the checkout line that inches along, and finally the multiple trips from car to kitchen hauling all those grocery bags. What if you could eliminate that dreaded chore AND reduce your environmental impact?

A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s Green Design Institute concluded that online purchases with home delivery can result in 35 percent less energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions than traditional shopping. Approximately 65 percent of total emissions generated by the traditional retail model comes from driving your own car to and from the store. Even though a huge, fuel-burning truck will be bringing the groceries to you, the incremental energy consumption and emissions created by one more shopping order and one more delivery stop added to the truck’s route is less significant than if you make the drive yourself.

There are also logistical differences in the supply chain that can lessen the environmental impact of online shopping. Traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers generally have items shipped from manufacturers to distributors to regional warehouses, where they are then redistributed to individual store locations. Online sellers can streamline the process. They usually eliminate at least one tier of regional warehousing, and some can even skip a few steps by relying on distribution partners to ship directly shipping to customer homes. This cuts back not just on the transportation of products, but also the bundled packaging and packing materials needed along the way.

Online grocery shopping is making a comeback.
The retail model was full of promise in the 1980’s, flamed out notably in the dot-com bust of the 1990’s (CNET named the failed online grocer Webvan the top flop of the era), and has gradually found its footing  in the aftermath. But online grocery purchases have never grown beyond a miniscule 1-2 percent portion of overall sales, thriving in just a few urban niche markets.

Here come the game-changers.
And this time around it’s a new ballgame—we’ve grown comfortable with online shopping, the modems are a lot faster, and gas prices have passed $4.00  a gallon. Walmart, already the nation’s biggest grocer, is experimenting with a new online service called Walmart To Go, while Amazon, the king of online retailers, has big plans for a national roll-out of its own service, AmazonFresh.

There are plenty of alternatives for the Walmart averse. SOS eMarketing compiled a list of 50 online grocers including ethnic, regional, and specialty retailers, and plenty of sources for organic and environmentally-friendly products.

You can read the full Carnegie Mellon study, Life Cycle Comparison of Traditional Retail and E-Commerce Logistics for Electronic Products: A Case Study of, at the publications page of the university’s Green Design Institute.



Posted in cyberculture, shopping, sustainability | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Open Table: Putting the squeeze on restaurants

Remember when…
It started with a well-timed phone call—if you made it too early, no one was there; too late and the dinner rush was under way. Maybe there were a few busy signals before you got through to the reservationist who promptly put you on hold, leaving you hanging with a little smooth jazz to keep you company. Then she came back to you for a spin through the reservation book. Friday at 8? Sorry, nothing till 9:30…

That was then.
Since the advent of Open Table, you can immediately see what’s available and when, and book a table with a firm confirmation any time, day or night. Friday at 8 is still a tough get, but now you just move down the list of available tables without doing another dance with another reservationist.

Win-Win, right?
It’s true that there are two real winners in the transaction: the diner gets the ease and convenience of going online, and Open Table makes a little pocket change on each reservation. The problem is that there are three parties to the transaction, and the advantage to the third—the restaurant—is not so clear.

When a restaurant signs on with Open Table, it pays a set-up fee that hovers somewhere around $1,000. For that it gets a rented terminal connected to the Open Table network and system training for employees. It costs the restaurant $199 each month to stay connected, plus it pays a fee for each seat at a table booked through the service—$1 per diner if the reservation was made through the Open Table website and 25¢ per seat if it was made through the ‘online reservations’ link on the restaurant’s own website.

There’s always been grumbling about the one-size-fits-all fee structure.
The 30-seat neighborhood spot pays the same $199 monthly fee as the 300-seat corporate-owned chain, which can be punishing to the bottom-line of small, low-volume restaurants where the charge is spread out among few diners. And the same dollar-per-diner charge that is inconsequential to a high-end restaurant with $30+ entrees is eating up a big share of the revenue at a modestly-priced bistro.

Open Table does have its advantages.
The arrangement benefits the restaurant in three ways: the restaurant can cut staffing costs by reducing or eliminating the reservationist function; it manages reservations in a way that optimizes the seating chart; and it creates a customer database full of food, wine, and seating preferences, ordering history, and significant dates like birthdays and anniversaries.

What it doesn’t seem to do is bring in more diners.
Few restaurateurs credit Open Table with adding to their customer base. The difference, they say, is that thanks to the subscriber fees, they are now earning less on the same business. Busy nights are still busy and off nights are still quiet.

About 14,000 U.S. restaurants—one-third of all those that accept reservations—use the service, which seats more than 4 million diners every month.
Open Table has become the gatekeeper to the nation’s restaurant seats, and for the restaurants, it’s become the pathway to both old and new customers.

The service has become indispensable for the way it has inserted itself in the middle of a restaurants’ relationship with its customers.
Diners used to ask “Where would you like to eat?” Now they turn first to Open Table and ask the question “Where can we eat?”


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Help for When You’re in a Pickle

Answers to life’s vexing cooking questions.

We can all use a little advice.
The problem is that the need tends to arise at the moments when we are elbows deep in soup-gone-wrong, or standing slack-jawed in the supermarket, wondering what one does with chervil.

What you need. When you need it.
While there has never been a shortage of places to go online for cooking advice, there has never been one that really works for us.
There’s the hit-or-miss of community boards where you cross your fingers as you post a question to the online forum.
There are the websites of food and appliance manufacturers which are more authoritative, if your question can be posed between the hours of 9 and 3, Monday through Friday, PST.
Really, if we were able to extricate ourselves from the problem long enough to sit down, post the question, and wait for the response (which comes in real time for someone, though probably not you), how much of a disaster could it be?

Of course there’s always the option of paid advice: the ‘verified’ professionals at sites like ChefsLine and Just Answer are ready to help just as soon as you give them a credit card number. Personally, if it comes to that, I would just as soon use the credit card to order a pizza.

Enter Food Pickle.
Food Pickle is a true, real time Q & A for home cooks. You can text a question, send pictures and other visual aids (message to 803-380-FOOD), tweet it (@foodpickle), or go old school by posting on the website.

Food Pickle is an offshoot of the crowd sourcing cookbook site Food52, which had already figured out how to tap into the public’s collective culinary intelligence. Responses come speedily, courtesy of both Food52 staff (which includes heavyweights like Amanda Hesser, food editor for the NY Times Magazine), and their cooking-savvy readers.

Brainstorm the leftovers, identify the mystery herb, or tame the over-salted gratin. The brain trust at Food Pickle gives you the food 411, or in a pinch, the food 911.


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Let’s Make a Deal

My This for Your That.
You did it as a kid. You had an innate sense of the relative value of a bag of Cheetos and could broker a win-win lunchroom exchange.

Swapping is back.
Combine the DIY ethic with social networks, add in a shaky economy, and the table is set for cashless food exchanges.

If you’ve ever made your own pickles or jam, the appeal of a swap is obvious. You spent a small fortune and an entire weekend on the project, leaving you with enough jars of a single condiment to last you two lifetimes. Connect with a dozen or so nearby DIYers and everyone gets to strut their culinary stuff and go home with a varied pantry’s worth of foodstuffs. Since swaps are held privately and no money changes hands, they are generally out of the purview of health and commerce regulatory agencies.

When a swap is dedicated to a single product the trading is self-evident—cookies for cookies, soup for soup. It gets fuzzy when there is no common food currency. I’m sure you make some kick-ass blueberry muffins, but they can seem awfully pedestrian next to Buddha’s Hand limoncello or confited duck legs. As the trading goes on around you, you might feel like the last kid left after the captains choose up sides in a neighborhood kickball game.

Putting your creation out there is inherently personal. Kitchen egos and credibility are at stake. At its best, with a community of like-minded home cooks with shared food sensibilities, a food swap ends up like a town hall meeting crossed with a village marketplace and a hint of the local pub. And you get to go home with your haul of lovingly-made, hand-crafted foods.

The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking guides you through hosting your own food swap, and provides links to ongoing events around the country.


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Oh Cap’n! my Cap’n!

Sometimes the internet is no better than a middle school cafeteria.

The rumor mill started grinding earlier this month with an article in AOL’s Daily Finance. A reporter noted that Cap’n Crunch cereal was nowhere to be found on the Quaker website. The article’s speculative title asked the question Is Cap’n Crunch Easing Quietly Into Retirement?

The piece was a rumination on the challenges facing the brand: its shrinking market share, public criticism of food companies that market to children, and White House pressure to make healthier products. It concluded that this is a pretty good time for the Cap’n to maintain a low profile.

The blogosphere then took that thread of speculation and ran with it:
Cap’n Crunch Retires (Seattle Post-Intelligencer); Cap’n Crunch sails into obscurity (Today on MSNBC); Cap’n Crunch Retirement (Yahoo! Buzz).

Fox News took it a step further, fabricating a political angle: Food Police Kill Cap’n Crunch (Fox Nation), inspiring headlines in conservative blogs like Obama’s Soggies Force Cap’n Crunch Into Early Retirement (, and Cap n’ Crunch: Michelle Obama Forces Captain Crunch’s Retirement? (Conservative BlogsCentral).

It took the Cap’n himself to put the rumors to rest via his newly-created Twitter account (@RealCapnCrunch): “I’m hearing the rumors. I would never retire. I love being a captain too much!”

Cap’n Crunch has sailed back from the brand equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle with its greater social media presence. The new website tiptoes around nutritional issues offering only that Cap’n Crunch is a great-tasting cereal which supplies grains, an excellent source of seven essential vitamins, is low in fat, cholesterol-free, has 0 grams of trans fat, and contains 1 gram of fiber.

Which just goes to show, you can’t believe everything you read on the internet.
Tony the Tiger and Count Chocula could not be reached for comment.


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A Tip of the Toque to the Bro King

image via Charlie Sheen's Winning Recipes


Thank you Charlie Sheen, for bringing bro food culture to the front and center.

Charlie Sheen is not himself a bro.
He’s way too West Coast for that, and of course he’s also missing the requisite frat house credentials. But more importantly, even if he had gone to college, he still wouldn’t have joined a fraternity—he’s too much of a lone wolf for that. Plus he clearly prefers the company of women. […]

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With Little Fanfare, Google Rolls Out its Recipe Search Engine.



One out of every 100 Google searches is for a recipe.

Since Google executes about one billion searches each day, that adds up to 10 million recipe queries a day. A day.
Did you think the Google juggernaut would sit back and let specialized searches like Allrecipes and Epicurious chip away at all that traffic? […]

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Tasty Cartography

funny food photos - Food Map


Google unleashed a beast when it gave the public access to the code for the Google Maps interface.
All of a sudden anything and everything could be turned into geography with a mash-up of data overlaying a map.

A Google Maps mash-up brought us a map of farm stands to shop for locally grown produce. A mash-up pinpoints every fast food hamburger from coast to coast, and another tells if a locality has more strip clubs, pizza parlors, or guns. There’s a map of happy hour specials for every day of the week, a  food truck location spotting map, and a map that can guide you through a multi-state burrito roadtrip, complete with reviews.

If it’s edible and mappable, it’s been mapped. […]

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The WikiGullet Project: the new ‘Wikipedia’ of food

 image via Will Write for Food/Dianne Jacob


Who doesn’t love Wikipedia?
It’s vast, fast, and always up-to-date. It’s the first place we turn to settle disputes.
It’s also messy, quirky, and sometimes less than authoritative—very much a human product.

You too can have a hand in shaping the ‘Wikipedia’ of food.
Like Wikipedia, the WikiGullet Project aims to be a community creation, written an entry at a time by a broad assemblage of volunteers. […]

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Salt. Cure. Blog. Repeat (every 30 days).

Saint Antonio Abate, Patron Saint of Butchers


You know it as 2011. To others, it’s The Year of Meat.
It’s Charcutepalooza, a name that doesn’t exactly roll trippingly off the tongue, but it’s all part of the slightly off-kilter, home-spun appeal. […]

Posted in blogging, cook + dine | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Google’s Mad Crazy New Search Tool

image via Electronic Illusions


Have you checked out the new Google labs Ngram Viewer?
It’s either the greatest research tool since the Dewey Decimal System or the internet’s most colossal, pernicious time suck.

It takes the vast, digital library of Google Books and treats the content like data. Choose up to five words or phrases and the Ngram Viewer will graph their published appearance for any period in the last 200 years. Choose well and it can reveal an awful lot about trends, interests, and inclinations. […]

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Running With Liquors



.Let’s bid adieu to the year of drinking dangerously.

In the past year, legal highs hit new lows. We saw wine in to-go cups, caffeine-fueled binge drinking, and bros icing bros. We paired drinking games with every media event from the World Cup to the State of the Union Address, and learned that heavy drinkers live longer than teetotalers.

As we emerge from our national hangover, let’s look back at the drunken year that was.

The liquid arms race.
Most beer has alcohol by volume (ABV) of about 4-6 percent. Occasionally you would see something in the teens or even cracking 20 percent. Until last year. Brewers battled for the title of strongest beer on the planet, shattering limits that had held for millennia. Although it has since toppled, for a brief, shining moment BrewDog Brewery was the titleholder for its astonishing 55 percent ABV blond Belgian-style ale which it inexplicably bottled inside of  taxidermied squirrels, rabbits, and weasels.

A bottle and glass will work well too.
Alcohol delivery methods got gimmicky, techie, and just plain ridiculous. We saw the self-serve wine pump and wine vending machines. Whipped Lightning put grain alcohol and flavorings in a pressurized can to create Whipahol®, and the KegMate combined an iPad and a beer tap for the ultimate party app.


Perfect for the little one’s lunchbox.
In 2010, we witnessed the introduction of sippy cup wine and Hello Kitty Pinot Noir. Milkshakes got boozy, chocolate milk hit 40 proof, and My Jello Americans treated jello shots like Play-Doh.

It’s not like it was a slow news year.
It seemed we just couldn’t look away. We saw our share of semi-riveting celebrity DUI arrests. A YouTube video of a drunk stumbling up a hill got more than 3 million hits. 21 of Billboard Magazine’s top 100 songs of the year contain lyrical references to drinking and drunkenness.

Theories abound.

We are a country that has always enjoyed a good stiff drink, but this has been something special. Perhaps, like the 1930’s repeal of Prohibition, a nation in the grips of recession needs to drown its sorrows in a cocktail glass. Or maybe it’s the sexy glamor of Mad Men-style drinking. Or it could just be that a beer costs less than a gallon of gas, a movie ticket, or a fast food hamburger.

Looking ahead, we hope to move beyond the gimmicky contrivances and welcome a return to civilized, traditional forms of imbibing. Let’s be inspired by Roger Sterling, who summed up his old-school philosophy of drinking:

My generation, we drink because it’s good, because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar, because we deserve it. We drink, because it’s what men [sic] do.

(Roger Sterling, Mad Men; Season 1, Episode 4)

Posted in beer + wine + spirits, cyberculture | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

I Know How to Fix Kwanzaa


Another year, another Kwanzaa, another conversation bemoaning its lack of broader acceptance.

Could it be any more obvious?
This is a holiday in need of a dish– an edible emblem, a culinary signature.

All the great holidays have one. […]

Posted in cyberculture, holidays | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The Geekiest Beer on Earth


Open source beer?

You’re already using open source software.
Maybe you’re running a Linux-based operating system or web browsing with Mozilla Firefox. Wikipedia is your go-to for open source content. This blog runs on the open source WordPress blogging platform. It’s called open source because the source code is right there for anyone to learn from or tinker with, and you don’t have to pay a royalty or fee to the license holder. […]

Posted in beer + wine + spirits, cyberculture | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Things Hipsters Like: Wine

Friends don’t let friends drink PBR

The cool kids are drinking wine.
That’s right; they are taking a pass on canned beer and putting down the bong for a nice Shiraz.

In the last seven years, 21- to 27-year-olds have increased per capita wine consumption in the United States by 40 percent—the largest increase in the wine industry’s history. They already make up 21% of core wine consumers- people who drink wine three or more times a week- and there’s another 20 million of them turning 21 over the next five years.

Twenty-somethings start drinking wine in earnest right out of college. Unlike previous generations who grew up with little more than a glass of Chenin Blanc with the Thanksgiving turkey and a New Year’s champagne toast, they learned at the knee of baby boomer parents who were responsible for the wine boom of the 1980’s. Their parents passed to them a comfort and fluency that allows them to approach wine casually, with little of the reverence and pretension of earlier generations of wine drinkers. […]

Posted in beer + wine + spirits, blogging | Tagged , | 3 Comments

My Life as a Foodie Carpetbagger

A girl’s gotta eat.

The economy has slowed, but not my appetite.
I’m not eating less, but I have made adjustments to what, where, and how I’m doing it.
I eat out less often and cook and entertain at home much more. I still want variety in my food and dining choices, but now my extravagances are more likely to be inventively prepared takeout and specialty grocery items.

Call me what you will: a carpetbagger, a profiteer, an opportunist. All I know is that with a little creativity, resourcefulness, and flexibility, the current economic climate can be a foodie’s salad days. […]

Posted in food business, food trends, shopping, social media | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Chef Really Does Hate You

Beastie Feastie mask via

And your waiter, the busboy, and probably even the guy who parked your car.
They read Yelp. They know what you’re saying about them. And they’re sick of getting dumped on by customers.

Turning the tables on you.
Servers have been having their say for years on blogs like Bitter Waitress and Waiter Rant; the bashing of bad tippers is an industry unto itself. But recently, the chefs have been speaking up. […]

Posted in blogging, restaurants | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

Kicking Around Any Ideas?

Are you the kid with the lemonade stand or the one with the quarter?

Kickstarter is the place for both of you.

Kickstarter connects people looking for money for their business projects with people willing to kick in.
It’s not a loan; it’s not an investment. It’s more like micro-patronage with a bit of crowd-sourced business advice.

In a nutshell:
Budding entrepreneurs post a video with their pitch and funding requirements.
Patrons pledge the funds in increments as small as a few dollars and up to $10,000. Pledges are pooled until the goal is met within a specific time frame.

It’s all or nothing. The rejection message is two-fold: the public has weighed in with a poor funding response, telling the hopeful entrepreneur that it’s back to the drawing board for a better concept; and it’s clear that a start-up shouldn’t be launched without sufficient resources.

Patrons are generally rewarded in the form of project mementos or perks—recently a $10 pledge brought a snack bag from an organic nut roaster, and $120 pledged to an occasional spice club (like spice-of-the month but, you know, not as regular) got you a year’s membership, a spice named for you, AND a refrigerator magnet. No less important are the thrill of proximate inclusion in a creative endeavor, and the warm and fuzzy and oh-so-hip feeling that comes from contributing to a worthwhile endeavor.

Kickstarter is open to projects of all kinds, but food is a constant motif. Food is the third most popular of the site’s 19 categories, and one of the most successful, with a 56% funding rate. The proposals  skew heavily toward food trucks, cupcakes, and home canners—a sign of both the times and the company’s Brooklyn location. The average food project has a funding goal of about $5,000, although this summer saw the founding of a North Carolina craft brewer who raised $44,000. Other recent launches include a solar-powered mobile crêperie, construction of a pedal-operated machine that churns butter and powers a toaster, and an Illinois high school class that wants to publish a cookbook (watch the typos in the business plan, guys).

Get in on the ground floor.

Currently seeking funds:

  • Tails and Trotters, a Portland, Oregon chef-farmer partnership, is almost half-way to its goal of $10,000 with 8 days remaining. The team is developing a true Northwest prosciutto produced from pigs fattened on hazelnuts. $100 will get you a ham and a VIP invite to the opening of their retail shop.
  • The clock is seriously ticking for Leo & Co., mother and son organic dog biscuit makers. With one day and just a few hundred dollars to go, they’ll send you a biscuit personalized with your pet’s name when you pledge as little as $1.
  • $40 gets you a screen credit in the forthcoming documentary Pimento Cheese, Please, currently looking for another $1,800 to cover production costs.
  • Help restore a 60 foot long dragon costume for use in the Chinese New Years Parade in San Francisco. 13 days and $2,000 to go, you can pledge as little as $1, but $50 will get you your picture taken wearing the dragon’s head. Not the foodiest of ventures, but the group behind the costume provides funding to the SF Food Bank. And how awesome is that dragon’s head picture?!.

See all the projects pending at Kickstarter.

Do you have an idea kicking around? Learn how to post your own project.


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When the Chosen People Choose Bacon


[image via Chan4Chan]

The current infatuation with all things bacon has even reached the Jews.

A delicatessen in New York sells a sandwich dubbed the conflicted Jew (bacon and chopped liver on challah), and a Queens bagel shop flecks its bagel dough with bacon.
A television ‘Top Chef’ creates a bacon-wrapped matzoh ball amuse bouche, while another Jewish celebrity chef instructs Jews to cook their Hanukkah latkes in bacon fat.

Bacon-loving Jews are running blogs like BBQ Jew, Bacon Jew and the Bacon Eating Jewish Vegetarian (how’s that for conflicted?!). There’s even a children’s book to explain it all (Baxter, The Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher). They’re not just eating it; they’re bacon overachievers.

The bacon awakening.

Sure, there have always been Jews who would eat certain pork products. It was a guilty pleasure usually reserved for dumplings and spare ribs in Chinese restaurants, and coffee shop BLTs. But this is different. Artisanal sausage, pork bellies and Spanish hams are flaunted. In young, progressive Jewish circles, pork eating can have a kind of social currency— treyf is hip.

Most bacon-loving Jews can blithely violate the ancient laws with little ambivalence. Although others in the Jewish community take offense, the pork-eaters claim no agenda of assimilation or rejection of traditional values. To them, it’s a gratuitous gesture tinged with irony rather than rebellion, complete with its own line of ironic t shirts (Kosher Ham). And bacon tastes so good.

Deuteronomy got a lot of things right. I’m not so sure the bacon prohibition was one of them.


Posted in blogging, food trends | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Coming Up Fast: Teens Who Blog


Shouldn’t they be studying for their SATs or something?

Food blogs written by teenagers are, well, written by teenagers. They defy generalization. You’ll find naive charm as well as jaded palates, kitchen tinkerers and culinary scientists— just like with the grownups, although the kids tend to spell better. And when did 16 year olds start having signature dishes?

When I look over my shoulder, these are the teenage bloggers I see: […]
Posted in cyberculture | Tagged , | 6 Comments
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