Tag Archives: restaurants

The Dine and Dash is Back

Just because your unemployment has run out and you’re living in your parents’ basement doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the finer things in life.

According to Nation’s Restaurant News, the traditional dine-and-dash is flourishing in these recessionary times.
No mere adolescent prank, customers of all stripes are slipping out without paying, stiffing owners and servers at restaurants all along the dining scale. There are surreptitious walkouts, made easier by waitstaff cutbacks. Some customers will ring up a big bill and exit without signing the credit card receipt, leaving the restaurant with little proof when the charge is later contested. And of course there will always be diners who refuse to pay for the steak, already eaten but incorrectly prepared, or the wine that they drank but insist was inadequate.

Like a platinum AmEx with no limit.
There is an element of trust that is unique to the restaurant business. No collateral is given, no credit check is run, identification isn’t even demanded; yet a restaurant is willing to feed you in advance of payment with no chance of recovering the meal if the bill is unpaid. It basically extends instant credit to all its patrons.

Dine-and-dash and the law.
Failing to pay a bill is not normally a crime, but if the presumption is that the customer never intended to pay the check, it’s considered criminal fraud. And when the tab is high enough, it can be a felony. Some restaurant owners will deduct the loss from the server’s wages presumably to incent employees to police their customers. In fact this is a violation of federal labor laws.

When it pays to be a nobody.
In the annals of true crime, few are as idiotic and incomprehensible as the tales of the celebrity d-and-d. Maybe they think that it’s payment enough to grace us with their presence. Restaurant owners tend to see things differently. Celebrities who have been caught in the scam include run-in regular Jeremy Piven, lovin’ the free cheesecake Foxy Brown, is he broke or just drunk Dennis Rodman, left them holding the [grocery] bag Adam Sandler, and the crown-forfeiting Miss Teen Louisiana, who probably could have pulled it off in any of the other 49 states.

What would you do?
ABC News hired three actors to play hungry teens, and two more to portray a diner waitress and her manager. Each time the same scene was played out, there were a few stares and raised eyebrows, but otherwise none of the diner’s patrons reacted when the teenagers brazenly strolled out without picking up the check. But when the customers saw the waitress’s distress, there were repeated offers from other tables to pay the unpaid tab, and customers who were willing to speak on her defense to the manager.

Watch the full episode of What Would You Do? at ABC TV.

Read about the exploits of America’s most prodigious dine-and-dasher. By the time the police caught on and put an end to his crime spree, he had amassed an arrest record that ran 133 pages.



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The Cheeseburger Footprint: Can you be green and eat fast food?

Nike shoeburger via LOL Gallery

Can you be green and eat fast food? Some fast food chains are better than others, when it comes to their environmental impact, but is a cheeseburger always going to be ethically challenged? We know about the carbon footprint of the greenhouse gases produced through burning fossil fuels for electricity, heating and transportation—the normal activities of our day-to-day lives. What about our cheeseburger footprint?

Each year, the green-living website Greenopia rates the environmental impact and healthy dining characteristics of popular fast food chains. The rankings are based on factors like sustainable building design, integrity of the supply chain, and participation in recycling and composting programs. We learn that McDonald’s is greener than Burger King, and Subway is doing a better job than Taco Bell. Good to know, yes, but this still doesn’t answer the question, Can you be green and eat fast food?

Can fast food ever be green?
Fast food chains generate tremendous amounts of waste. Recycled or not, no other dining format can touch its levels. And once you peel back the wrappers and packaging, you have the food miles and greenhouse gases, and the salt, fat, and high-fructose corn syrup of factory farmed, heavily processed foods.

Fast food will ultimately hit the wall when it tries to go green.
We, the customers, are hooked on fast, cheap, and convenient. The fast food giants can improve their use and disposal of packaging materials. They have the clout to push food producers toward more sustainable options that are organic, fairly traded, and additive-free. But the high volume, low cost model will always dictate the terms and impose its own limitations. Processed travels better than fresh, fruit-flavored is cheaper than fruit, and a Big Mac is still going to cost less than a salad. Getting it ‘to go’ will always mean wasteful packaging, and cars will continue to idle in drive-through lanes.

Let’s go back to the original question: Can you be green and eat fast food?
There are plenty of anti-waste crusaders and Slow Food advocates who would answer with an emphatic, unequivocal ‘no;’ that even the greenest of fast food options run counter to their missions, producing more waste and carbon emissions than home cooking served on real dishes. But isn’t that like telling the owner of a Prius that hybrids are pointless, or even counterproductive, because they still burn fossil fuels?

While it’s true that a bicycle is a greener, more ethical option than any car, it obviously doesn’t work for everyone and in all circumstances. As an alternative, a hybrid car is a laudable, pragmatic solution, and even a catalyst for change—the presence of each one on our roads helps promote a worthy message in the public sphere.

Unfortunately, most of us won’t be giving up our quick, inexpensive meals eaten on the fly any more than we will quit driving. So when we opt for fast food, we need to patronize those chains that are making a true effort to minimize their impact on the environment, the ones given a 3- or 4-leaf rating by Greenopia’s fast food ratings.

Choosing to eat even the most ethical, sustainable fast food is an imperfect option in the same way that a Prius is an imperfect vehicle, and the self-righteous among us might challenge the ‘greenness’ of the choice. But it represents distinct, incremental progress and creates public awareness that just might be the catalyst for further change on our way to a greener future.

Just how bad is fast food’s impact on the environment? It’s all broken down for you in the Cheeseburger Footprint.


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Small Plates: Love ‘Em or Loathe ‘Em

image via Little Red Book

Appetizers are the new entree.
Is there any bigger dining trend than small plates? It’s been gaining momentum for about a decade, but in 2011 there was a quantum leap in popularity. Restaurants everywhere are encouraging us to graze our way through dinner by putting together a shareable meal of small courses in large numbers.

Eveyone has a theory.
Some say that small plates are like snippets of meals, reflecting the MTV fast-cuts and twitter-length of our attention spans. Or that it’s driven by the economy; it’s the down marketing of our plates after the sky-high vertical towers of food we saw in the dot-com boom. It could be moderation driven by health and diet issues, or a rejection of the formality and structure of traditional dining. Or maybe plate size is just fashion, like the rise and fall of hemlines.

We love small plates.
Any dining veteran can tell you that appetizers are the best part of the meal, and the small plates format gives you a veritable smörgåsbord of appetizers. The best small plates are not just scaled-down entrées; the flavors are bigger, more intense. You can take more risks with them because the commitment—of dollars, appetite, and calories—is smaller.

A meal composed of small plates has its own rhythm. It doesn’t have to fit the traditional progression of courses so it always fits into your day. You can get the variety of a tasting menu, with less expense and formality, or have fries and dessert- just fries and dessert- and no one even raises their eyebrows.

We loathe small plates.
What was wrong with full-sized plates of properly paired food? Small plates bring a clash of flavors that never quite add up to the balance of a well-composed meal. And with per plate prices that fall somewhere between appetizers and entrees, it can quickly add up to a very uneconomical way to dine.

Sharing brings its own headaches. You tussle with the number and assortment of dishes, sidestepping allergies, aversions, and dietary restrictions. Plates bring supremely unsplittable portions like a single duck leg or 3 scallops for 4 people, and you never get more than a few precious bites, no matter how much you love a single dish.

Small plates have their place.
We don’t just eat in restaurants on special occasions like previous generations of diners. The unstructured small plates format gives us versatility, expanding and contracting to fit a range of appetites and social occasions. But we are the nation that invented super-sized meals, the unlimited salad bar, and the bottomless cup of coffee. Small plates are a refreshing alternative, but not a monumental shift in the way we eat.



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The Restaurant is Cursed

A priest, a rabbi, and a monk walk into a burger joint.
No joke, they were there to remove a curse.

Holy water was sprinkled, the four corners received a Buddhist blessing, and a mezuzah was installed in the doorway. The new tenant, New York Burger Company, wasn’t taking any chances; the location had been named to Eater NY’s list of New York’s Cursed Restaurant Spaces.

Is there such a thing as a cursed location?
You know the one. Every other business on the block seems to be doing just fine, but there’s one restaurant site that constantly and inexplicably houses doomed restaurants. It has the same foot traffic and parking as its neighbors, no ancient burial ground underfoot, but it has a revolving door of struggling owners and concepts. When New York Burger Company took over the spot at 470 West 23d Street—an attractive corner on a fashionable block in Chelsea—it had been home to an Italian restaurant, a neighborhood bar and grill, a Latin lounge, and a French bistro, all in the span of seven years.

Of course restaurants are a notoriously risky business. Recent studies peg the first-year failure rate at 30%, with another 30% closing within three years. Most fail for obvious reasons: bad food, bad, service bad management; and if there is a lurking malign influence, it’s like cockroaches in the kitchen–no one in the industry wants to talk about it. Leasing agents will pooh-pooh the notion, and restaurant owners speak only in whispers for fear of infecting their staff with superstitions.

Customers and reviewers are another story. Familiarity with a location’s history can give new ventures guilt by association; diners will subconsciously scrutinize the new restaurant for signs of impending doom, their appraisals are more forensic, they sniff the air for the whiff of failure.

New York Burger Company seemed to be beating the odds. Business was booming. AOL Cityguide had named it the city’s best burger, GQ Magazine talked about its onion rings in an article on The Twenty Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die. Last December, one of the partners of New York Burger Company was confident enough to proclaim the jinx to be ‘officially dead’.

Despite the good press and multi-denominational blessings, New York Burger Company currently awaits the court appointment of a custodian to manage its troubled finances while the two co-owners sue and counter-sue each other. One partner has been evicted from her home office, the other has been charged with financial mismanagement, staff has been dismissed, locks have been changed.

Cursed? Who knows. But you’d be crazy to try another restaurant in that location.

A psychic-medium took a tour of the cursed spaces from NY Eater’s list. Check out her readings of the spaces on Metromix.


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Credit Card Fees on the Tip: Who Pays?

Did you know that servers cover the tip’s fees on credit cards?

According to the federal fair labor standards, restaurant owners can (and they do) deduct the tip-related portion of their credit card processing fees from the tips given to servers. It’s a small amount from each tip (typically around 2%, and can go as high as 4%), but it adds up.

Take a restaurant chain like Olive Garden. The average location brings in nearly $5 million in revenue and there are 750 of them. Figuring tips as 15% of sales and about three-quarters of them going on credit cards, the fees collected on tips would be in the neighborhood of $14,000 for each restaurant and more than $10 million for the entire chain.

For a full-time waiter, the fee give-back adds up to an amount approaching $1,000 annually. That’s a lot of lost income to a predominantly minimum wage workforce, and let’s not forget that the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is a staggeringly stingy $2.13 an hour.

This is not meant to be an indictment of restaurant owners. They are simply passing the fees along to the credit card companies, and themselves feel the squeeze from credit card fees cutting into their slim margins. Still, the practice is controversial. Many in the industry view the credit card fees as any other cost of doing business, like the electric bill or linen rental, and believe that like those costs, should be borne by the owner. To date, the labor departments in 15 states have banned the practice.

According to the National Restaurant Association, diners now use plastic 80% of the time at fine dining establishments, 60% of the time at casual restaurants, and even 25% of the time for fast food. That tip you thought was 15%— it’s not.


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The Yelp IPO. Who Wants In?

Yelp is going public.
Last week the business-review website operator filed with the SEC for its initial public offering. Sometime in early 2012, you should be able to buy publicly traded shares of Yelp stock. But will you want them?
We can’t seem to make up our minds about Yelp.

We love Yelp.
It’s the mother of all review sites. We barely remember a time when we ate out without consulting it.

We hate Yelp.
Like the old adage says: Everyone’s a critic. On Yelp that includes the uninformed, the unqualified, and the perpetrators of unchecked spelling and grammar.

Yelp is a runaway success.
Yelp draws 61 million monthly visitors to its database of 22 million user reviews.

Yelp is a failure.
Losses total $32 million and counting. Some believe Yelp can never turn a profit.

Merchants can’t make up their minds either.
Exposure on Yelp can drive real traffic to small businesses. Amid a sea of competing delis and pizza joints, a couple of good Yelp reviews can make all the difference. But merchants complain about the lack of transparency to Yelp’s review filter that selects what’s posted publicly, and have suspected that the filter is manipulated to benefit paid advertisers. Class-action lawsuits have been filed that accuse the company of extorting ad fees in exchange for withholding negative reviews.

Then there’s Yelp’s love-hate for Google.
Google may be the pipeline to Yelp’s customer base, but these days there’s not a lot of love passing between the two sites. A few years ago, Google paid Yelp for access to its review database to populate Google Places, a local business add-on to Google Maps. After that agreement ran out, Google tried to buy Yelp, and when the offer was turned down, Google continued to mine Yelp’s pages, without payment, for unlicensed content.

This fall Google bought the Zagat reviewing brand, removed most of the pay wall and pitted it directly against Yelp. Yelp has seen its content pushed to the bottom of online searches as Google tinkers with rankings to favor its own Zagat results. Since more than half of all of Yelp’s traffic comes from Google searches, this could be a disaster in the making for Yelp.

Unconditional love for Yelp’s IPO.
Yelp is the Web’s de facto reviewing authority with killer brand recognition, millions of devoted Yelpers, and a ready-made stock symbol (YELP). Despite grumbles from readers, lawsuits from retailers, and imploding tech partnerships, the IPO is expected to be a great success. Groupon’s recent public offering demonstrated that investors will line up to buy a piece of an over-valued, unprofitable tech company with a shaky future.

More detail about Yelp’s IPO can be found in the S-1 registration statement the company filed with the SEC.


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Dirty Bathroom, Dirty Kitchen: a.k.a. The Potty Post

image via MyDoorSign.com

Talk about an appetite killer.
We’ve all been there. Literally. The dirty restaurant bathroom that makes us wonder about the kitchen. If they couldn’t be bothered to keep the bathroom clean…

A recent poll by Cintas, a provider of restroom supplies to the restaurant industry, found that 79% of respondents would avoid a restaurant if they knew the bathrooms were dirty. 88% of them agreed that the state of the restrooms says something about the kitchen’s hygiene, and 94% said if they personally encountered bathroom nastiness, they wouldn’t return.

Looking beyond the yuck factor
Clearly there’s spillover in our minds, but there is actually no hard data to support a connection between a dirty bathroom and a dirty kitchen. According to Douglas Powell, professor of food safety at Kansas State University and publisher of the BarfBlog, health inspectors will take note of the general state of a restaurant restroom and include impressions and any obvious violations in the report, but they don’t pull out the swabs and test kits like they do in the kitchen. Professor Powell is a big believer in the power of hand-washing to compensate for other inadequacies, and recommends that customers speak up if there’s no soap or hot water, or if they see slipshod washing by restaurant workers.

We rate the chefs, the ambiance, our favorite dishes; why not the bathrooms?
That’s the question asked by the developers of Bestroom, a new smartphone app that helps you find and rate restrooms in restaurants, Starbucks, and other public places.

Another start-up, although I’m not holding my breath for this IPO, is CLOO’. Short for community plus loo (with an apostrophe mark to represent a GPS marker), CLOO’ is a location-based social media app that gives you a private option when the public restroom is unacceptable or unavailable. CLOO’ searches through your social networks to locate potential, nearby hosts who, for a small fee, will allow you to drop by and relieve yourself in their bathrooms. The company calls this “turning a stranger’s loo into a friend of a friend’s loo;” what would you call it?

Cintas, the company behind the poll, gives an annual award for America’s Best Bathroom. Winners receive a plaque and a permanent spot in the Cintas Hall of Fame. Previous winners have been found in hotels and restaurants, a casino, a college, and the Fort Smith, Arkansas regional airport. This year’s nominees included an eco-friendly Brooklyn Cuban restaurant that flushes its toilets with reclaimed rainwater, a Las Vegas casino men’s room with urinals set into authentic, graffiti-covered sections of the Berlin Wall, and a Presidential porta-potty made for Barack Obama’s inauguration. You can find this year’s and past years’ winners at America’s Best Restroom Hall of Fame.



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Don’t Hold the Mayo

[Nine Badass Mayonnaise Jars via Marc Johns]

Nobody’s holding the mayo these days.
According to research by Bloomberg Businessweek, six of the top 15 best-selling condiments in the U.S. are different varieties of mayonnaise. While we’ve been musing about population trends and watching salsa and ketchup duke it out, we failed to notice that mayonnaise has been living large at the top of the condiment heap.

Mayonnaise love is kind of embarrassing. We’ve always thought of mayonnaise as a little low-rent, a little trashy. Every negative stereotype hanging over American food is encapsulated in each white, bland, fatty dollop. It’s been falsely mythologized as the spoilage-prone scourge of picnics and potlucks, and doubles as a common treatment for head lice.

Like bacon before it, trend watchers think that mayonnaise’s down-market, all-American image gives it the hallmarks of a foodie cult-favorite in the making.

Mayonnaise goes upscale.
36 new supermarket varieties have been introduced in recent months in trendy flavors like chipotle and lime. All the big commercial brands have added a line of olive oil mayonnaise replacing some of the standard soybean oil with that culinary darling, and Hellmann’s is transitioning its whole product line to cage-free eggs.

A sure sign of its overhaul is the appearance of mayonnaise on fine dining menus. Of course chefs have always tinkered with various flavorings added to the basic mayonnaise emulsion of egg yolk, oil and and acid (usually vinegar or lemon juice). But it always left the kitchen labelled as rémoulade, rouille, or aïoli. Now, they’re able to hold their heads up high and say mayonnaise.

This month we’ll see the opening of the world’s first world luxury mayonnaise store. Empire Mayonnaise Co. is shooting for the artisan stratosphere with seasonal flavorings like white truffle, Indian lime pickle, fennel, and black garlic, and will include emu and quail eggs as the base for some batches. Naturally, the new shop is located in Brooklyn.

Haven’t you always wondered…http://printablecouponsanddeals.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Hellmans-mayo-new.jpg
Why the great mayonnaise divide—Best Foods in the western half of the U.S., Hellmann’s in the east?
Best Foods has owned both since 1932 (and the company has been a division of Unilever since 2000), but decided early on that both brands had such commanding market shares in their respective halves of the country that the distinct names and recipes should be preserved. The two products are made in the same plant and contain all the same ingredients, but there are slight variations in relative quantities of those ingredients. Best Foods is the tarter and tangier of the two, and is presumed to contain more lemon juice, but the company isn’t talking.



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Tap Water: Cheap, Environmentally Sound, and Now Trendy?

[image via Pur]

Remember the aha moment when you realized that Evian is ‘naive’ spelled backwards?
It was a moment of clarity, of sanity. You wouldn’t be duped. You wouldn’t be one of those status-seeking suckers out there who were buying into baseless health claims and slick marketing. You knew that the Emperor was just plain naked.

So what happened?
You did become one of them. We all did.
We’re drinking more bottle water than ever—85 million bottles every single day. But there is one bright spot; one place where we have curbed the habit and are going out of our way to specify tap: tap water orders are way up in restaurants. According to the consumer research group NPD, restaurant tap water is one of the fastest-growing beverage orders, increasing annually by nearly a billion servings.

Economic conditions are clearly behind the trend. In the current recession, we’ve barely cut back on the frequency of dining out—just one percent in the past 5 years—but we’re looking for ways to trim the tab. We’re keeping dessert and dumping the bottled water.

Tap water also has a kind of reverse status for the restaurants.
For three decades, beginning with the Perrier days of the 1970s, restaurants were guilty of promoting water elitism. They sent their waiters out to push high mark-up/high margin bottled water menus, and made us feel like cheapskates when we chose the tap. Now they’re shunning bottled water to demonstrate their locavore and sustainability bonafides, and frankly, they owe us this one.

There’s an environmental upside to the down economy. Since 2006, just this little switch to tap water in restaurants has already saved 8.75 billion gallons of water, and all the associated packaging, transportation, recycling, and landfill waste. The challenge is to make this change permanent, and not lapse into our old water habits when the economy turns around.


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You Can Bring a Gun into a Restaurant in 49 States

image via the Chattanooga Pulse


Ohio recently  became the latest state to open its bar and restaurant doors to gun-toting customers. Ohio joins four other states, Tennessee, Arizona, Georgia, and Virginia, that enacted laws explicitly allowing loaded guns in bars, while 17 other states allow weapons in restaurants that serve alcohol. The status is fuzzy in another 20 states, including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, where legislatures have not explicitly addressed the question; by default they are allowing their residents to carry guns into establishments that serve alcohol.

These laws are the latest wave in the country’s gun debate, and represent progress made by the gun lobby as it seeks, state by state, to expand the realm of guns in everyday life. They follow last year’s Supreme Court rulings affirming that citizens have an individual right to keep a loaded handgun for self defense. The rulings opened a floodgate of lawsuits challenging various state gun laws. Some of the most extreme proposals have come from gunslinging Governor Rick Perry who thinks Texans should always come to the table strapped, even when that table is in a school cafeteria.

The laws in most states allow people licensed to carry concealed weapons to take them into taverns, hotels, and restaurants. Armed customers are not supposed to drink, although that’s little comfort to servers and bartenders, many of whom feel that the mix of guns and alcohol-emboldened customers creates an unsafe work environment. Bars and restaurants are free to post signs banning weapons, but compliance can be iffy, with local gun-carry forums springing up to point out loopholes, and of course the weapons are concealed in the first place.

The logic of the madhouse
On November 1, when Governor Scott Walker signs Wisconsin’s Personal Protection Act into law, Illinois will be the nation’s last hold-out; the only state to prohibit the  carrying of guns into restaurants. It’s a sad day when a state’s General Assembly thinks its citizens need to carry weapons to be safe in restaurants.

We know that alcohol and firearms are a dangerous mix, but we seem to have lost touch with common sense on this life-and-death issue.

Keep up with the latest gun legislation with the public interest law center Legal Community Against Violence.

The NRA website has an interactive, state-by-state map of current firearm laws.




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The Latest Food Startups: At the Intersection of Food and Technology

Foodia. Foodzie. Foodily. Foodbuzz. Foodspotting. Foodista. Foodtree. Foodler. Foodoro. Fooducopia. Foodcaching. Food-Ex.
Did I forget anyone?

It feels like every day there’s a new food and technology venture competing for our attention, and still, the food-related startups just keep coming. There is no end to the interesting and innovative ways we can now search for recipes and nutrition tips, track down rare ingredients and bargains, or find out where all our Facebook friends like to go out for dinner. It’s all good, but still, you have to wonder if we really need three different services that can page us when a table is available in a popular restaurant (No Wait, Textaurant, and ReadyPing).

Does it feel crowded in here to you?
Aren’t all the programmers, designers, and entrepreneurs supposed to be building up that ‘cloud’ computing thing? Instead, they’re poking around the food space and even bringing the capital with them. Money managers took notice in August when a chain of grilled cheese restaurants launched with an estimated $10+ million in funding from the same group that backed Google, Yahoo, and Pure Digital. Now every seed fund and venture incubator program worth its salt has at least a couple of food startups in its stable.

It shows no signs of slowing down. Here are some of the newest entrants focused on technology, innovation, and market trends in the food world:

MooBella has developed an ice cream-on-demand vending machine that takes 40 seconds to churn out a fresh scoop that can be customized with 96 different variations of flavors, mix-ins, and butterfat.

Tasted Menu has users rate, recommend, and review individual restaurant dishes to create a database of the best of the best (and worst of the worst) for each city it covers. It joins Foodspotting and Forkly in a crowded field of crowdsourcers.

You’ll never eat alone: Grub With Us plans family-style dinners for strangers to meet at restaurants (currently in 7 cities), and SpoonDate lets you arrange a spontaneous blind date based on location and food cravings.

Culture Kitchen hosts authentic, ethnic cooking classes taught by new immigrants.

Foodcaching consolidates offers from daily deals sites like Groupon and Living Social and turns them into a location-based treasure hunt for food and drink bargains.

Foodoro and Fooducopia have joined the old-timer, three-year old Foodzie, in the marketplace for buyers and sellers of hand-crafted foods that let you set up your own etsy-style shop.

Jeffrey Peden, founder & CEO of CraveLabs looks at why the food industry is so ripe for the tech invasion.

Looking for a piece of the action? Kickstarter is a funding platform that lets you in on the ground floor of start-ups for as little as $5. It’s currently seeking micro-funding for a caffeinated breakfast cereal, a maker of fancy cake kits for home bakers, a crowd-sourced cookbook, and a few dozen other food-based projects.

Food and Tech Connect is an information company that produces networking events connecting innovators—the entrepreneurs, technologists, researchers, policy makers, farmers, and producers—at the intersection of food and information technology. It’s the premier place to stay on top of what’s happening on the cutting-edge of the food world.



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Will Restaurant Menus Go the Way of the Album Cover?

photo collage via Popphoto

Some of us are still mourning the passing of the album cover.
First shrunk to CD jewel box size, it’s all but disappeared into the straight-to-iPod download.  A once vital contribution to the culture of music, album art and liner notes are increasingly the preserve of gray-bearded collectors.

Could the same thing happen to restaurant menus?
Many of the quick-serve and national chains now use electronic menu boards, self-serve ordering kiosks, and digital table projections. iPad menus and wine lists are popping up at even high-end restaurants, and a restaurant’s website has become the ultimate ambassador for an establishment’s brand identity.

The menu used to be the heart of any restaurant.
Like album covers, menus reflect social, cultural, and artistic values. They are big canvases where restaurateurs can create a visual and tactile experience that invites us in and tells us a story about the meal to come.

Thankfully, there are some who will carry the torch into the digital age.

The preeminent design champions of Under Consideration recently launched Art of the Menu to catalog what they call “the underrated creativity of menus from around the world.”

The fine art publisher Taschen has just released Menu Design in America, a yummy, coffee table-sized book that provides an epicurean tour of dining in America over the past 100 years.

The Italian gastronomic society Academia Barilla has a rich collection of menus dating back to the early 1800’s, giving us a rare view of regional Italian cooking that predates the unification of the individual Italian states.

The Harley Spiller Menu Collection documents one man’s love affair with Chinese takeout. 6,000 of the 10,000 menus in his private collection are of the tri-fold variety that urban dwellers find stuffed in their mailboxes.

The New York Public Library has one of the world’s largest historical menu collections, with more than 40,000 menus that are regularly perused by historians, chefs, novelists, and everyday food enthusiasts.

You can help carry that torch.
For years, the librarians at the New York Public Library have been slogging their way through the process of digitizing their massive menu collection. The progress has been slowed by the idiosyncratic nature of menus. The Optical Character Recognition technology is stymied by handwritten menus, unorthodox layouts, and fanciful typography, and the digital scanners aren’t able to read the menus in a way that creates indexable, searchable data.

The library has created the What’s on the Menu? project to enlist the public’s help in transcribing the menus, dish by dish. Eventually they plan to formalize the process a bit, but for now there are no user accounts or tracking systems. You just click on a menu and type what you see. It’s easy and it literally takes just a few seconds of your time for you to contribute to this important preservation of our culinary past.

Give it a try—you can start transcribing right now, right here!



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A Most Unusual Restaurant Map



You ate what?! You ate where?!

You know the feeling. Chinese—been there; pizza—done that. The taste buds are feeling a little jaded, the neighborhood spots are old hat. If only there was a restaurant where you could be served by monkey waiters. Or nuns. Or a restaurant with an all-blueberry menu, or one with straw-hatted donkeys wandering between tables waiting for leftovers.

The Google Map of The Most Unusual Restaurants in the World is here to rescue you from the same old, same old. The map, assembled by an eccentric Russian foodie, is marked with hundreds of little map pins, each with the promise of a unique dining experience. There are rare delicacies, exotic settings, quirky service, and wacky themes.

Restaurants with unusual settings.
You can dine in a quarry or a tree house, underground, or under the sea. There are working prisons, churches, cemeteries, and sewage treatment plants with restaurants open to the public. You can dine at the rim of an active volcano, in a Mediterranean fishing hut, or feast on cabbage soup and pelmeni in Stalin’s bunker.

Restaurants with unusual service.
Yes, there really are monkey waiters at Japan’s Kayabukiya Tavern; they prefer their tips in edamame. At Rome’s L’eau Vive, the serving nuns (who favor the title  ‘Missionary Workers of the Immaculate,’ or  ‘Daughters of the 44th Psalm’) dish up a fine plat du jour—today’s is steak served with an eggplant mousse and potato croquettes—or you can always order from the John Paul II Beatification Menu.

You can find meals delivered by robots, model trains, and catapult (at Bangkok’s Ka-tron Flying Chicken). Child labor laws are skirted at Holland’s Kinderkook Kafé, and good taste goes out the window at Hobbit House and Dwarfs Island (yes, little people do the serving).

Restaurants with unusual food.
There’s plenty of exotica; the bats, snakes, and sheep heads of foreign menus, but the map also points you to the prosaic. In addition to blueberries, you can find menus with nothing but potato dishes, grilled cheese sandwiches, apples, eggs, cheese, or breakfast cereal. For the truly undecided, one Thai restaurants checks your blood type and personality traits and then brings what it thinks is best; or you could try a restaurant where the customers choose each others meals.

There are restaurants where you catch your own fish or cook your own meal; others lend lonely diners a cat or bunny for company. You can eat in a recreated Jewish ghetto, Alice’s Wonderland, a vampire’s lair, or  a hospital room.

The Google Map of The Most Unusual Restaurants in the World  links to websites, menus, and directions. It’s a work in progress that welcomes your suggestions.



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First Date Groupon: Frugal genius or extreme cheapskate?


image via Jay I Kemp

It’s awfully tempting to use an online coupon on a first date.
With the right Groupon offer, you can offer a splurge that’s otherwise out of reach—the crème brûlée tastes just as rich at half price, right? Even if it’s just a neighborhood joint, you’re demonstrating thrift and fiscal savvy, and who wouldn’t want to see such admirable qualities in a potential mate?

Sorry, but most seasoned daters and relationship experts see it as a mistake. It’s considered cheap, tacky, and so unsexy. In the world of dating don’ts, it’s right up there with asking for a doggie bag.

I know what you’re thinking: who wants to date someone so obviously shallow and materialistic, with such disregard for your circumstances and best interests? Those are valid points, and the experts recommend you hang on to those thoughts for a future date, maybe the third or fourth. The best first dates are about mood, magic, and romance; a big dose of practicality wrecks the atmosphere and brings a couple down to Earth.

Groupon is working furiously to overcome the first date stigma.
The company conjures up its own first dates through its Date Assistant, a free matchmaking service for singles looking to couple up and redeem two-for-one offers. Groupon also brought together unattached-and-looking coupon clippers with an offer of $85 worth of speed dating discounted to $40, which set a Guinness World Record for the largest speed dating event in history.

And then there’s Grouspawn.
If a couple uses a Groupon coupon on a first date and subsequently produces a child, they may be rewarded with a $60,000 college fund. Two such couples will be chosen each year, which should help push them past that awkward first date moment—photographed hand in hand with the coupon and the day’s newspaper—when the relative strangers/prospective parents gather the requisite documentation. Just in case.

As a general rule, a relationship needs a firmer foundation before couponing can begin. Groupon on a first date and your crush may not respect you in the morning.



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Offal for Beginners

Clockwise from top: pig's tongue, heart, foot, ear. Image via Eat Me Daily

We are having an offal moment.
Nose-to-tail, organs, innards, variety meats, the nasty bits—whatever you want to call it, whole-animal cookery is experiencing a revival in restaurant and home kitchens.

There are good reasons to eat offal.
It’s cheap, full of nutrients and protein, and adds variety to our diets. It reduces waste, maximizing the resources of food production, and pays a kind of respect to the animal that gave its life to appear on our plates. Of course those reasons are probably the last thing on your mind when you’re confronted with a grilled sheep heart (very tender, distinctly ringed with chambers) or boiled pig ears (simultaneously crunchy and gelatinous, still looking very ear-like).

Offal doesn’t challenge us with its taste. Most innards and extremities are subtly flavored and not unfamiliar. And intellectually we appreciate its virtues. The problem is an emotional, elemental, visceral response—one we feel in our own viscera. Its homophonic name (yes, it is pronounced awful) doesn’t help.

Offal is the stuff of nightmares for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Some might recoil from brussels sprouts and others gag on cottage cheese, but offal provokes a squeamishness that is nearly universal. It’s a shame, because some of today’s most creative chefs have embraced whole-carcass cooking as a badge of honor, producing innovative, exciting dishes based on offal and odd bits like heads, tails, and trotters.

If you’re ready to take the plunge, here are some tips to get you started.

  • Leave it to the professionals.
    Preparations can involve some fairly gruesome peeling, snipping, and soaking. You want to be sure it’s done right and hang on to your resolve and your appetite. Eat out.
  • Start with sweetbreads.
    You probably thought I was going to say liver, but no, the thymus gland (or sometimes pancreas) is the better gateway offal. Sweetbreads are sweet and mild, and in expert hands will emerge tender and crispy, sort of like a cross between monkfish and fried chicken. Liver, on the other hand, is chalky with a powerful mineral tang—paté and terrines did not prepare you. Trust me, you want the sweetbreads.
  • Know your limitations.
    The true challenge is not to your palate but to your head. Pig brains might taste like nectar from the gods, but if you can’t get past the ick factor, then don’t go there. We all draw our lines somewhere, and there’s no shame if yours is this side of ram testicles.

The U.K. Guardian explains all the nasty bits in An A to Z of Offal.

AOL’s Gadling travel blog has A Guide to America’s Most “Offal” Restaurants.


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Shut Happens: Which Restaurant Will Be Next to Fail?










Restaurant closings. Those are the real signs of the times.
In recent months, Sbarro, Perkins, Marie Callender’s, Fuddruckers, Steak and Ale, Bakers Square, Bennigan’s, Old Country Buffet, Pizzeria Uno, and Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse have all filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Employees, investors, suppliers, and customers are all wondering, who’s next?

Even in the best of times, restaurants are a risky business. In a recession, empty tables and stalled prices cut into thin profit margins; combine that with the rising food costs we’re seeing, and the margins are squeezed on two sides.

The restaurants that went belly-up all had some things in common: all were national chains; all were in the quick or casual dining sector, a cut or a few above fast food; and with the exception of the pizzeria chains, all were marked by mediocrity and a sameness of menus. Each was conceived differently— Bennigan’s was modeled as an Irish pub, Perkins as a bakery/luncheonette, Charlie Brown’s fancied itself a classic, clubby steakhouse—but you could walk into any one of them and order shrimp tempura, a buffalo chicken wrap, and a chipotle-flavored something.

Who’s cooking, who’s flaming out?
The Street, an online media company that covers investing and finance, compiled a Bankruptcy Watch list of the 14 restaurant chains with the greatest likelihood of failure in the coming months. From least to most risky they are:

14. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers
13. Sonic
12. Ruby Tuesday
11. Carrols Restaurant Group (operates Pollo Tropical and Taco Cabana, and Burger King franchises)
10. Einstein Noah Restaurant Group (Einstein Bros., Noah’s, and Manhattan Bagels)
9. O’Charley’s (O’Charley’s, Ninety Nine Restaurant, and Stoney River Legendary Steaks)
8. Ruth’s Hospitality Group (Ruth’s Chris Steak House and  Mitchell’s Fish Market)
7. McCormick & Schmick’s
6. Bravo Brio Restaurant Group (BRAVO! Cucina Italiana and BRIO Tuscan Grille)
5. Domino’s Pizza
4. DineEquity (IHOP and Applebee’s)
3. Morton’s The Steakhouse
2. Wendy’s/Arby’s
1. Denny’s

Not to worry—even if the worst-case scenario plays out 14 times, striking everyone on the list, we’re still left with plenty of mediocre chain restaurants where we can go to satisfy a yen for nondescript, chipotle-flavored something.

Visit The Street for the details outlining each company’s potential for bankruptcy.


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A Daily Deal Just for You

[image via ToMuse]

It’s the daily deal battle royale.
Groupon’s success has spawned an entire industry of ‘deal-of-the-day’ clones. The good news: outstanding bargains are out there; virtually something for everyone. The bad news: something for everyone is flooding your inbox, from tequila tastings to pole-dancing lessons, when all you really want is a good, discounted pizza. There are so many of these daily deal startups out there, that now we have daily deal sites aimed at them.

Fortunately, there are sites that stand out from the pack. They are targeting narrow, niche markets, and putting their own spin on the social buying business model.

For the boys gone wild
Thrillist, the online newsletter celebrating the bro lifestyle, has launched Thrillist Rewards, heavy on half-price brewery tours, mail-order meats, and all-you-can-eat spare rib deals.

For the other boys gone wild
The Daily Hookup and Daily Pride are the gay man’s answer to Groupon.

For the foodies
Too tasteful for coupons, Savored takes you into the kind of high-end dining rooms where the discount is kept under wraps. It’s prearranged at reservation time, and then automatically, and discreetly, subtracted from the total at meal’s end. I guarantee you will be amazed by the celebrated and coveted tables to be had through these deals, and it’s all so hush-hush that even your dinner companions won’t know your secret.

For African-Americans
The discount deals offered at the Black Biz Hookup come from black-owned and operated businesses.

For moms
You’ll find half-priced treats aplenty for family-friendly fro-yo shops at Plum Distict.

For the Jews
A dozen bagels for the price of six, or maybe a nice brisket sandwich? Between JDeal and yes, Jewpon, you’re sure to find them.

For suburbanites
You get big city dining bargains and you don’t have to pay for downtown parking with the small town BigTip deal site.

For Hispanics and Latinos
Multiple sites are still duking it out for preeminence in this massive target market; Desceuento Libre, Groupacho, and Social Libre. Each offers a different Latin-flavored oferta del dia.

For the Fox News crowd
Glenn Beck launched Markdown, touting its combination of values (of the shopping kind) and values (conservative ones).

The pizza and beer pong set has CampusDibs, there are Gluten Free Deals for celiac sufferers, and Vegan Cuts is the place to save money and animals. Don’t feel left out if your tribe isn’t represented here; new niche sites pop up regularly.

To help you sort through the deals:
Yipit aggregates all the deals from all the services, and then sends a single, consolidated email customized to fit your preferences. Take a look at the more than 200 deal sites they are currently tracking.
Restaurant critic meets price tracker at The Bad Deal. Check here before you buy.
You have unused, prepaid Groupon and other coupons, and the expiration date is approaching. Impulse purchases can happen to the best of us. Fortunately, there is a robust secondary market for deal coupons at Lasta.



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Why the Chef Gave Back his Michelin Star

The chef said:
The food world was stunned this week when Le Lisita, a restaurant in the south of France, handed back its Michelin star.

Why on earth would a restaurant give back its coveted Michelin star?
The best known and most highly respected of all the restaurant ratings, Michelin stars are awarded very sparingly. A star (or two or three) in Le Guide Rouge can make or break a restaurant.
But so can a bad economy.

A Michelin star signifies a standard of décor and service. The guidebook’s inspectors demand it, diners know to expect it, and bankers are more than happy to extend credit lines for capital improvements to starred establishments. According to the Society for Quantitative Gastronomy, a restaurant’s prices will rise by 20% after the award to offset the higher operating costs.

Thanks, but no thanks.
Following the accolade, Le Lisita found itself barely breaking even, serving haute cuisine in a rareified atmosphere in the midst of an economic crisis, while humble, affordable brasseries and bistros were doing a roaring trade. Since giving back the cherished award, Chef Olivier Douett has revived his former, brasserie format.

Le Lisita now offers a menu with starter and plat du jour for €23.60 ($33.54). Each waiter looks after twenty to thirty customers, rather than the five or six of the one star restaurant. Chef Douett now feels like he is cooking for his customers, not just for stars.



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Restaurant Websites: C’mon, people, you can do better.

Listen up, restaurants.

There’s a serious problem with your websites. You lavish attention on the details of food and service, but you put a website out there that would shame a first-year design student with its slow-loading graphics, clunky navigation, and forced downloads. Come on people, first impressions. Don’t you get it?

Here, in no particular order, are our top pet peeves:

Auto-play music: What is this, 1998? That’s the last time that unsolicited music that loaded with a site was kind of fun, kind of novel. Now it’s just annoying.

Flash abuse: You can do the darnedest things with flash these days. Look at all those animated special effects with the twirling, dancing logo. Love the slideshow of  arty closeups. Lucky me with all this time to admire it while I wait for the damned thing to load!

Pre-home page: The home page has finally loaded and I’ll be able to find the information I am looking for. Nope, just a lot of animated frippery and a click to ‘Enter Site.’ I thought that’s what I was doing when I typed the URL and hit ‘enter.’

Hide and seek with the essentials: Don’t make me count off the clicks until I get to the address, phone number, and hours of operation, all scattered throughout the site. Here’s a thought— how about keeping the information together and putting it all on that fancy pre-home page?

The menu: Are you honestly asking me to download a pdf of your menu? It’s not just a nuisance– if I’m on my phone, a metered data plan will make me pay for this privilege.

Get a clue about mobile devices: Hello? Does anyone in the kitchen have a smartphone?

Clean, fast-loading, logical, easy to navigate, mobility-enabled. Get it?



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Groupon: Like a one night stand for restaurants

[image via the Marketoonist]

Daily deal or deal with the devil?
It’s been hailed as a savior and slammed as a scourge of the restaurant industry.
It’s become a major force in dining, every month adding tens of millions of new subscribers.
As Groupon prepares to go public —in a hotly anticipated offering that could be the biggest initial tech company valuation ever—we have to ask: is this a good thing?

Here’s the deal:
Each day Groupon sends out an offer to its subscribers. It’s usually a discount of 50% or more off of products or services, heavily skewed toward dining and lifestyle categories. It’s activated only if Groupon delivers a specified number of customers to the vendor, encouraging subscribers to spread the word. Groupon and the seller split the proceeds, so at 50% off, a restaurant ends up with 25% of the offer’s value.

What’s in it for the restaurant?
Restaurant profits typically hover in the range of 5-7%, so it would appear that the owner loses his shirt on each Groupon sale. He’s counting on a few things to save him: the offer will bring in new customers who are converted to regulars; the Groupon customers will pay full price for menu items beyond the scope of the deal; and that a certain number of discount vouchers will be purchased but never redeemed before the expiration date (usually 6 months ahead). Rarely does it go as planned.

Usually the restaurant gets slammed immediately after the Groupon offer is floated, although often it’s just the regular customers coming in at discounted prices—a Wall Street Journal investigation found new customers to comprise as little as 10% of Groupon sales. When it has brought in substantial new business, the seller might struggle to maintain service and quality, alienating an original base of customers in the process. By virtue of their association with Groupon, you can assume that the new business is skewed toward bargain-hunters who are there for the cheap eats and will never return to pay full price for the same meal. The unredeemed coupons are often the only way a restaurateur makes a buck.

This is the restaurant equivalent of a one night stand. There’s a quick thrill from the initial rush of customers, but ultimately the brand is cheapened by the offer. This is not the way for businesses to build sustainable, customer relationships.



Posted in cyberculture, food business | Tagged , | 3 Comments
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