Web 2.0

A Cautionary Tale for Yelp Reviewers

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Yelpers beware!
Last week the Court of Appeals of Virginia affirmed a lower court’s ruling that ordered Yelp to pass along the full, legal names of seven reviewers to the business they had reviewed. Posting anonymously or using their Yelp screen names, all seven individuals had left reviews that were highly critical of the Alexandria carpet cleaning service.

The ruling sent a chill through on-line communities.
There’s an assumption of privacy when you sit at home sounding off on sites like Yelp; you’re just one more disembodied voice in the cacophony that unites in digital forums. The ruling is intended to pierce the veil of privacy so that the carpet cleaner can challenge specific claims contained in the reviews and potentially sue the reviewers.

The carpet cleaner would not be the first business owner to sue for a negative review. Defamation lawsuits are becoming more common as the free-wheeling chatter of review sites collides with the growing importance of online reputations. Judgements–some running into millions of dollars—have targeted individual reviewers on sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Angie’s List.

Where’s the First Amendment in all this?
Anonymous communications have always been privileged and protected as an important element in our political and social discourse. If those communications are deliberately false and damaging to a business, they’re illegal; they lose their First Amendment protection and the target can sue for defamation. You can freely give your opinion, and it can be as vulgar, abusive, or outrageous as you want, but if you’re making a statement of fact, you’d better have your facts straight.

Dining reviews: where chef egos collide with sharp-tongued critics 
Restaurateurs are especially litigious toward reviewers but incidents of genuine defamation are rare. There’s a lot of leeway in the highly subjective world of dining reviews, as long as you stick to opinions. Go ahead and bash the meal but be careful of suppositions about the grade of beef, health code violations, ingredients that you think you do or don’t detect, or anything else that can be countered factually. That means a meal can be described as nauseating but unless you can verify the salmonella bacterium you better not claim food poisoning.

The review sites themselves are off the hook.
Sites like Yelp are merely the messengers and are not liable for the messages. They can be aware of or even make editorial judgments regarding objectionable content, but they’re still treated as simple intermediaries for third party content. Legal claims can only be directed at the reviewers themselves.

A cautionary tale for the social media era
As the internet continues to mature the stakes are getting higher, and we can expect to see many more lawsuits. Online reputations keep growing in importance and their significance is extending to more and more business sectors. This makes businesses that are targeted by defamation more inclined to sue, and the courts are growing more cognizant of the scope of damages and are awarding plaintiffs accordingly.

 

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Another Epic Twitter Fail – This Time It’s Starbucks’ Turn

cursing twitter via ClaudiaChez

cursing twitter via ClaudiaChez

 

When good tweets go bad
Twitter is a powerful tool for brands to interact with their fans. It’s an inexpensive and immediate way for restaurants to build relationships and create a buzz. It builds customer engagement and loyalty. But when something goes wrong, things can go downhill in a hurry.

The followers, and the followers’ followers, and the followers’ followers’ followers….
We’ve seen blunders and over-sharing, humor that backfires, restaurants that tweet their own gaffes, and Twitter campaigns hijacked by disgruntled customers. When it happens, the company’s own narrative is in the hands of the masses. Starbucks is the latest in a string of restaurants to lose control and see their Twitter campaign blow up.

They spread it, all right.
Starbucks created the hashtag #SpreadTheCheer and invited its customers in the United Kingdom to tweet out some holiday cheer. The feed was displayed  on a giant screen at London’s Natural History museum where the company sponsors the ice rink. But cheerful quickly turned to sneerful.

Unfortunately, Starbucks has a reputation as a bit of a Scrooge in Britain where the company has been in the news for its plans to cut paid lunch breaks, sick leave, and maternity benefits for thousands of employees. It had also recently emerged that the coffee chain, with 700 locations across the U.K., had circumvented the British tax system with some financial-sleight-of-hand involving its division in Switzerland, and had paid less than 1% in corporate taxes over 14 years. The tweeter feed was flooded with profanity-laced sentiments blasting Starbucks as economy-busting tax dodgers who push overpriced milky coffee drowned in sugar syrup. And all was displayed on a giant screen at a central London landmark.

For the non-twitterers out there, hashtags are words or phrases preceded by a hash (#) symbol. They’re used to organize tweets into a topic or dialogue, and make them searchable. The hottest hashtags appear as trending topics on the right side of Twitter’s homepage, the most coveted spot in the twitterverse, seen by millions of users. This happens organically when a newsworthy event dominates the conversation, like #HurricaneSandy or #JustinBieberHaircut, or for about $120,000 a hashtag can be purchased and promoted as a trending topic, as Starbucks did with #SpreadTheCheer.

This is not the first restaurant twitter campaign gone wild.
McDonald’s began promoting the sponsored hashtag #McDStories with the idea of getting people talking about their experiences with the fast food giant. The company started the conversation with a few innocuous tweets:  Meet some of the hard-working people dedicated to providing McDs with quality food every day and When u make something w/pride, people can taste it. As hoped, people shared their #McDStories by the thousands. There were stories about diabetes and diarrhea, a video posted of a mouse working its way through a bag of hamburger buns, and a heated back-and-forth with PETA over the inhumane use of mechanically-separated chickens. Apparently some McDStories are better left untold.

Wendy’s had a similar experience with a Twitter campaign built around its 25-year old TV commercial with the little old lady crying out “Where’s the Beef?  When the chain promoted its hashtag #HerestheBeef, plenty of users responded with their pornographic versions of Here it is! and another segment responded with less bawdy but equally graphic imagery of cruelly penned, industrially-raised livestock.

There have been some obvious missteps: Taco Bell was justifiably slammed for its utterly offensive tweet on Martin Luther King Day asking Have you ever dreamed of eating @Taco Bell and then woke up and made that dream come true?  And Denny’s printed its menus with an invitation to Join the conversation! that directed its customers to the Twitter account of a Taiwanese gentlemen named Denny Hsieh whose Twitter handle is @Dennys. The menus were used for four months in 1,500 locations before they were corrected.

For Starbucks, this was a rare stumble in cyberspace. The company has topped virtually every list of social media winners since such things were tracked: industry, media, and marketing firms have all singled out Starbucks as the most socially engaged company, the best loved online brand, and the top restaurant presence online. That’s what makes this bush league Twitter fail all the more surprising. A publicly displayed, unmoderated, real-time feed? They should have known better.

 

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Mmmm. Tastes Like Brooklyn.

Exit Sign: Brooklyn Bridge, southbound at Cadman Plaza West.


The hot dogs and pastrami will be halal when the Brooklyn Diner opens this week in Dubai.
This, the third location and the only one outside of New York, will will have the same neon signs, Ebbets Field mural, and brass plaques with names of American celebrities and sport figures as the original. Noodle kugel will be served with the pot roast and egg creams will be made with Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup. They’ll still be using challah in the diner’s French toast, but it will be called egg bread, and the kosher pickles will be referred to as ‘sour dills.’
You don’t want to be too Jewish in Dubai. […]

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Eco-Friendly Wine: It’s Not Easy Being Green

.image via Certified International

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You’ve heard of the French Paradox? You can call this the Napa Valley Paradox.

Organic tends to cost more than its conventional counterparts. It’s true for produce and dairy, meats and cleaning products. But when ‘organic’ appears on a wine label, it actually commands a lower price. […]

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Trend Watching 2011

image via Free Republic

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It’s that time of year.

It’s the time when we look over the past twelve months and ahead to the next.
We make lists, savoring our favorite food moments of 2010, and identifying a few that are best left behind us. We try to see ahead of the curve, spotting the trends for 2011. […]

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The Sweetener Formerly Known As…

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It worked for Prince.

By now you’ve probably heard about the public relations disaster that is the sweetener formerly known as high fructose corn syrup.
After years of waging a losing battle to convince the American public that HFCS is not really so bad, the Corn Refiners Association has petitioned the FDA for an ‘alternative labeling declaration,’ preferring the more natural-sounding moniker ‘corn sugar.’

Name changes are a common practice in today’s marketplace .
When a name—for one reason or another—just isn’t working, the strategy is to regroup, rebrand, and relaunch. We’ve seen it in the corporate world: who even remembers that AirTran was once ValuJet, an airline best known for safety violations and fatalities? Philip Morris hoped to distance itself from tobacco when it became Altria; the Nashville Network added CSI reruns to its low-rent lineup and reinvented itself as Spike TV; and then there is Sean Combs, patron saint of name changes, aka Puff Daddy, er Puffy, I mean P. Diddy, or is that just plain Diddy?

The food world has a long history of name changing.
Consumer tastes, diets, perceptions, and health concerns are constantly shifting, and food names and brands have had to be especially mutable to survive.

How Sweet it Was.

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http://www.blatherwincerepeat.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/sugar-crisp-a.jpg http://www.comicbooknoise.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/spock-sugar-smacks.jpg http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_XU9x8G7khv0/S4vh_DsAnFI/AAAAAAAANV4/ehWkeDgtkNs/s400/sugar+sparkled+flakes.jpghttp://theimaginaryworld.com/box203.jpghttp://www.12ozprophet.com/images/uploads/sugarpopspete.jpg […]

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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.

 

Posted in cyberculture, food business | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Death Penalty for Food Crimes

Can somebody tell me why we still import food from China?

A few examples of recent food shipments from China that were flagged at our borders:
Dried apples preserved with a known carcinogen.
Plums tinted with chemical dyes that are unsafe for human consumption.
Mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides.
Seafood laden with banned antibiotics and coated with putrefying bacteria. […]

Posted in food business, food policy, food safety | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Wondering About Wonder Bread

image by Diane Witman via Word It

Yes, Wonder Bread is still around.

It’s an iconic brand; a slice of genuine Americana. It exists somewhere between comfort food and ironic pop artifact in our collective nostalgia.

Bleached and puffy, spongy and glutenous, Wonder Bread has long been celebrated for its texture and elasticity. A lunch box favorite, generations of mothers have appreciated the resilience of the smooth, glassine-like surface of each slice, never tearing as peanut butter or mayonnaise is applied. Schoolchildren have always enjoyed squishing and imaginatively molding the bread, reducing each dough-conditioned, texturized slice to to just a few marble-sized bits, a full loaf to a baseball-sized wad. […]

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Breakfast Any Time


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I was at this restaurant. The sign said Breakfast Anytime. So I ordered french toast in the Renaissance.

— Steven Wright

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Breakfast for lunch. Or dinner.

Breakfast is a meal best served all day. Few of us have the time or the inclination for much more than some nibbles of toast with our morning coffee. Better to save the calories and indulgent flavors for a midday break or even dinner when the day is winding down and we can take the time to savor them. […]

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Does Sarah Palin Drink Chardonnay?

image courtesy of Behance Network

Hand over that wine list, buster!

Women wine drinkers have overtaken men. Women buy more, spend more, drink more. And it’s not the proverbial glass of Chardonnay– red wine is favored by a wide margin.

Women and wine are a natural match. […]

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Iced Coffee is Hot Hot Hot!

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Iced coffee is expected to rack up yet another season of double-digit sales increases.

The big boys are tripping over each other with new product launches as each tries to cash in on our growing affinity for iced versions of our favorite beverage. Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, and McDonalds will be going head-to-head this summer, each with its own frozen-dark-roasted-choice-of-flavored-syrup-blended-ginormous renditions. […]

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Chef Tattoos: food love 4 ever

It’s a new breed of chef.

Unbound from centuries of tradition, they cast off the starched white chef’s jacket and toque. The cooking became daring and experimental; the lifestyle a reflection of the profession. It’s the chef as rock star, replete with fame and fortune, drugs and groupies. And tattoos.

The traditional marks of the profession, the calluses, cuts, burns, and scars, are no longer enough. The contemporary chef flaunts a more personal, ballsier, in-your-face style (regardless of gender— there are plenty of ballsy women working in the industry), that tattoos complement. […]

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The 80 Year-Old Twinkie

                      image via Super Healthy Kids

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The sounds of Louis Armstrong …a photograph of U.S. troops liberating a concentration camp…Neil Armstrong’s walk on the Moon…the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr…the literary works of William Faulkner…Twinkies…

That’s right, Hostess Twinkies made the cut. On the occasion of the millennium, a twin-pack of the snack cakes was included among the artifacts placed in our nation’s official time capsule. Intended as a record of 20th century cultural, scientific, humanistic, and technological achievements, the items are held at the National Archives and Records Administration where they will represent us to future generations. […]

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The Last Banana on Earth

       image courtesy of Geostationary Banana Over Texas
Bananas are on a crash course to extinction.
10 years, give or take. That’s how long scientists are giving the banana.
Then what will we slice on our morning cereal? […]
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Food Fraud: Is that olive oil really from Italy?

Walk down a midtown Manhattan street and you’ll see a folding table piled high with knockoff Prada handbags, Rolex watches, and Louis Vuitton wallets for a fraction of their retail prices.

Shoppers are well-acquainted with the fake designer goods racket. They know they are buying counterfeits, choosing to be complicit in a crime in pursuit of a bargain.

But what about the shadow economy for counterfeit food products? […]

Posted in food business, food policy, food safety | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Street Food Minus the Street

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Food trucks were the darlings of the food world in 2009.

Take the recessionary economy. Add in the food savvy to swap withered hot dogs for trendy dishes like red velvet cupcakes or the Asian-fusion of Korean tacos. Give it a boost of tech savvy with Twittered locations and daily specials. And that’s how street food grew into a full-fledged culinary phenomenon.

Street food has the intrinsic charm of a communal, democratic experience. It’s cheap and casual with no dress code or reservations required. It is also hurried and messy. Instead of a maitre d’ to seat you, you have to cop a squat on a bench or curb. There are squirt bottle condiments, flimsy plastic cutlery, and the ambiance of the streets, with its attendant bus fumes, car alarms, and weather.

Ultimately, street food proved to be a little too street for many of us.

That’s why this year’s trend is the gentrification of street food. […]

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Starbucks Love. Starbucks Hate.

starbucks_mugs_recursive

Starbucks Love

These days you risk getting run out of hip society for admitting a fondness for the Seattle giant. Even Starbucks is shunning its own brand with the opening of 15th Ave. Coffee and Tea. From the coffee cups to the store fixtures, Starbucks’ ownership  is nowhere in evidence. 15th Ave. can’t even be found on the Starbucks website, instead answering to the screen name of streetlevelcoffee.com. […]

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Does This Smell Funny to You?

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Keep it or toss it?

Expiration date
Best if used by
Sell by

It must be a government agency in action. Probably the FDA or maybe the USDA or the Agriculture Department. But there’s some authority providing oversight and guaranteeing our food’s safety, right?

Guess again. […]

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Just Because You Eat it Doesn’t Make You a Restaurant Critic

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                 vintage cartoon via Serious Eats

The internet speaks with many voices

Restaurant criticism has become a democratic activity. This has not always been the case. Restaurant reviewing, like all forms of cultural criticism, was an elite enterprise. It was undertaken by individuals who brought disciplined tastes and cultural and contextual perspective. They adhered to an established set of ethical and journalistic standards. It was precisely because they were not one of us that we valued their opinions.

The rise of social media has changed all that. We’ve seen the flowering of millions of cacophonous voices and a forum for each of them. But do we really want to swap the lone, authoritative voice for the collective wisdom of many? […]

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