Most Interesting Trends at the 2013 Winter Fancy Food Show

imageBy the time food trends like bacon-flavored-everything and cupcakes reach supermarket shelves, they’ve already been flaunted by multiple food companies at the Fancy Food Show. This convention of sorts is where the worlds food purveyors, big and small, come to show off their newest creations. It’s where food trends are born, both artisan and mainstream.

This year’s 38th annual show was bigger than ever with 1,300 exhibiting companies and 18,000 attendees at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Here’s the Top 5 most interesting trends I spotted at the event.

1. Strange things are going on with tea:
This year, I saw a focus on teas with added benefits like probiotics and herbs that aid in replenishing or adding to your workout routine (think Vitamin Water but with brewed tea). But the weirdest of them all was a line of savory teas with flavors like Beet Cabbage, Broccoli Cilantro and Spinach Chive. Described as “not quite a soup and more than a tea,” it seemed to have an identity crisis built right in. But once I tried it, I surprisingly, didn’t hate it.

2. Cooking with Hemp:
I recently tried a scalloped potatoes dish with hemp cream that I loved, so I was intrigued to see the emergence of shelled hemp seeds this year. It is more a textural experience (chewy and a bit like teeny tiny quinoa) than a flavorful one (doesn’t add any). You sprinkle them on your yogurt or fish like you would granola. Apparently they’re loaded with health benefits and give you sustained energy. And no, you won’t get high off this stuff so there’s no point in adding it to those brownies.

3. Cherries are the new pomegranate:
Move over pomegranates! Cherries are apparently superior to all your much-touted antioxidant goodness. Tart cherry juice reduces inflammation, has naturally occurring melatonin to help you sleep, and it fights heart disease. I personally prefer the taste of cherry juice to pomegranate, which can be way too tart for me.

4. White cheddar popcorn is so passe:
Seems cheddar is just too boring when it comes to a bag of gourmet popped corn. I saw varieties like blue cheese, butter toffee, hatch chili con queso, chipotle lime, sun-dried tomato parmesan, and smoked gouda. Popcorn has entered potato chip territory with these adventurous new flavors.

5. Squeeze pouches aren’t just for kids anymore:
If you have children, you’ve seen those squeeze pouches of wholesome applesauce that are lifesavers because of their convenient, mess-free packaging and perfect portions. So why limit them to just the kids? Active adults will love smoothies, pureed antioxidant-rich fruit, and even veggie combinations in squeezable portable pouches just as much as the little ones.

6. Ice cream sandwiches are the new cake pop:
Seems like every year there’s a new hand-held dessert trend. Gone are cupcakes, cake pops, and whoopie pies. Gourmet ice cream sandwiches will be hitting your supermarket’s freezer by mid-year from some of the best gourmet ice cream makers.

*Cross-posted on BlogHer.com. 

 

Aida Mollenkamp’s “Keys to the Kitchen”

Keys to the Kitchen by Aida Mollenkamp

Photo by VirgoBlue

Aida Mollenkamp, former editor of CHOW and star of both the Food Network and the Cooking Channel, wants to provide the home cook with a go-to kitchen resource. That is why she wrote her new book “Keys to the Kitchen.” Marketed as a cookbook, it’s much more than that. In the book, she breaks cooking down to one simple equation:

Quality Ingredients (The Set-Up) + Kitchen Skills (The How-To) + Technique (The Recipes) + Cooking Method (The Riff) = GOOD FOOD

With hundreds of recipes and more cooking techniques than you ever knew you needed, “Keys to the Kitchen” could almost serve as a cooking class textbook. But of course, Aida makes it much more exciting than that. She’s encouraging home cooks to be more adventurous in the kitchen and not to be afraid to try new techniques and tastes. By providing some basic principles to purchasing, preparing and cooking food creatively she promotes the development of an adventurous approach to eating.

With the book coming out this month and a possible new show on the horizon, she’s hard to catch up with, but fortunately she carved out some time to talk about her new book and share some key tips with Bay Area Bites.

What is it about food that still excites you?
AM: I stay excited because everyday presents an opportunity for a new food adventure. Whether it’s something as simple as buying an ingredient you’ve never used before, cooking a dish for the first time, or traveling somewhere and eating a new flavor, there’s always something out there.

What are your 5 best tips for being more adventurous in the kitchen?

    AM:

  1. Follow flavors you like
    Don’t think of your favorite recipe merely as one dish but rather as layers and layers of flavors. With that mentality, taste and dissect the details at your next dinner. Who knows? You may think you dislike a spice or ingredient only to realize it’s in a lot of the foods you love.
  2. Travel through your taste buds
    Many a food lover pines for the chance to eat fresh fried samosas in the streets of India or shop firsthand at renowned food markets, like Mexico City’s La Merced, but few of us can afford that reality. Instead, live vicariously through their food — though you won’t have souvenirs, you’ll rack up plenty of food memories.
  3. Buy something new every time you shop
    Consider each trip to the market as a chance to explore and aim to buy a new (if only to you) ingredient each time you shop. Sure, you may encounter a few duds, but more often than not, you’ll be pleasantly surprised and realize you actually love sauerkraut.
  4. Think of your kitchen as a lab
    Change your perspective and think of cooking not as drudgery but as your daily chance for culinary creativity. And really, it’s a lab with pretty low risk — the worst-case scenario is that the dog ends up being fed really well.Start simple by swapping the herbs and spices in your favorite recipes, then graduate to using ingredients you’ve never tried.
  5. Make mealtime mash-ups
    With cooking experimentation comes rule breaking, so don’t be scared — just go with it. In the last few years, all sorts of ethnic flavors have (like music) been mashed up into cross-cultural dishes — like the now ubiquitous Korean tacos.Take a page from that trend and try a spin on your favorite foods, like chorizo on a gyro, kimchi in a Bloody Mary, Madras curry spices whirred into your vanilla ice cream, or any other twist that will help you forge your own food adventure.

This doesn’t seem like your typical cut and dry recipe cookbook. What was your inspiration?
AM: That’s right. While a lot of cookbooks are a catalogue of recipes, “Keys to the Kitchen” is more of a kitchen reference combined with a cookbook. It’s a modern manual to the kitchen that teaches you how to shop, covers basic kitchen techniques, and then culminates with over 300 original recipes that cover everything from an elegant holiday-worthy roast to ideas for reinventing last night’s leftovers.

I wrote the book for my friends who like food but are intimidated by the kitchen because they were never taught to cook. Over and over again, I’d have people ask me the same general questions — things like how to read labels, which cuts of meat are best for which preparations, and recipes for interesting but accessible recipes. I wrote “Keys to the Kitchen” to provide those answers and to help people become better cooks, whether it’s their first time turning on the stove or the one-thousandth.

What’s coming up for you after the launch of the cookbook? More television? More writing?
AM: Well, the rest of the year will be devoted to my multi-city book tour. From mid-September through the holidays, I’ll be traveling to 14 different cities for book signings, demos, and other in-person cooking events.

After that, I’m going to start developing a new show that I, unfortunately, can’t talk about too much right now. But, I promise to keep you posted as it develops.

*This article is also posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

Review: Metromint

The 6 Metromint water flavors. Courtesy Metromint.com

The folks at Metromint were kind enough to send me samples of their line of flavored waters way back when. Unfortunately, the timing was bad. I was in my first trimester of pregnancy and the thought of those waters made me want to puke (it had nothing to do with a bottle of water and everything to do with my physical state at the time). Fortunately, it was temporary, but I had completely forgotten about the waters until recently.

Metromint is an all natural mintwater made with real mint. No sweeteners, no calories, and no preservatives.

The first two times I tasted a Metromint water were before I ever even received the samples. It was at a food event and I have to admit, I was less than impressed. It was the Peppermint flavor, chilled, which is how they suggest you drink it. My first thought when I took my first sip was mouthwash. Most specifically, I thought it tasted like Scope. Not good. I vowed never to try it again.

But later on, I found a bottle of the Chocolate Mint variety in a gift bag I had, room temp, and out of sheer thirsty desperation, I took a swig. To my surprise, I rather liked it! I found that not chilling it actually made the mint in the water mellow out, which is what I preferred over the overwhelming burst of minty freshness I had initially experienced.

So when I received the complete line of flavors, I was curious to see if this was the case with all the flavors. It indeed was. I also found that I like the mellow addition of mint to the subtle cherry, orange and lemon flavors. Very refreshing. I realized that my issue with Metromint was the Peppermint flavor itself. It reminded me too much of a breath freshener or a mouthwash. Even the Spearmint was less offensive to me.

It’s the perfect beverage for a hot summer day, and a good alternative to lemonade. I keep thinking: refreshing…as long as I stay away from the Peppermint.

New York City: Work hard, shop hard, eat well

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New York City has always been about three things for me: Work hard, shop hard, eat well. I was in town for only 3 nights on a business trip, so I had to pack a lot into just a little amount of free time. Fortunately, NYC is a good place for that.

I visited a few key restaurants and hit up a few key sales, deciding not to waste my time with stores that were even remotely touristy or similar to the ones I could find back in San Francisco. I was shopping with a purpose, no browsing here. And I wanted to hit up a few key eateries that were sure to please.

Here’s a recap (but by no means a “Best of” list):

Uniqlo – I arrived early enough in the evening to hit up their new 5th Avenue flagship store before closing time. The place opened less than a week ago and in the daytime, there were still plenty of people lining up just to get inside the 3 story building full of H&M-esque Japanese fashions. They were promoting a lot of cashmere (in 25 different colors), puffy jackets, and $10 jeans (on sale), but I was more interested in their undergarments and leggings. They’re a great deal and good quality.

Halal Cart http://53rdand6th.com (53rd St. & 6th Ave.) – Their famous Chicken and Rice platter with white sauce is frequently named as one of the best street food eats in town. I’m lucky because I usually end up staying at the Hilton which is right next to the cart. And after arriving in NYC just a few hours before, it was the perfect low-key meal to take up to the room and eat while unpacking. Although, I suspect this meal tastes much better after some club hopping and you’re looking for something hearty to suck up all the alcohol in your system.

Ess-A-Bagel http://www.ess-a-bagel.com (831 3rd Ave.) – Just like NYC pizza, you can’t get a bagel anywhere else like the kinds you find in the Big Apple, and Ess-A-Bagel is the perfect place to get the perfect bagel. It’s been around since 1976 and is a NYC institution. I went with the standard lox and cream cheese with some red onions and lettuce on a toasted everything bagel and it was the perfect breakfast. The bagel itself was perfectly crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, just like you’d want it to be. Why is this so hard to find anywhere else?

Lupa http://www.luparestaurant.com (170 Thompson St.) – This Mario Batali eatery is the lower key version of his famous Babbo restaurant, though many think it’s actually better. It’s casual and low-key, which I liked.

My friend and I shared the Salumi Platter which included slices of Prosciutto Di Parma and house-made Coppa Cotta, Testa, Speck and Lingua, among others. It was the highlight of the meal. For entrees we ordered the Spaghetti Carbonara, which was solidly good, but nothing to write home about, and the Skate with Lentils and Greens, which had a bright citrusy flavor from the grapefruit in the dish. And it was perfectly cooked. For dessert, we splurged with the Lupa Tartufo which both looked and tasted like a huge Ferrero Rocher chocolate, except with a decadent ice cream filled center. There was hazelnut and chocolate all over this huge thing. It was delicious and definitely enough to serve two. The service was friendly, attentive and unpretentious.

The Jill Sander Sample Sale – This event happens twice a year in NYC from what I can tell, and it’s a popular sale with locals. Eventhough my pregnant self can’t fit into any of the clothes that were 85% off, I found handbags and shoes. You can’t beat getting a pair of patent leather flats and pair of neutral slingbacks for just $140, altogether (including tax). They originally retailed for over $400 a pair.

Prune http://www.prunerestaurant.com (54 East 1st St.) – Before I talk about the food, I have to get my Jake Gyllenhaal sighting out of the way. The dude was waiting for a table just like anyone else, so that was refreshing to see. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to get all TMZ on him so I didn’t snap a picture.

Anyways, this famous restaurant is a favorite among chefs like Eric Rupert and Anthony Bourdain, and obviously, celebrities that like to wander in without an entourage. Chef Gabrielle Hamilton has become a bit of a celebrity herself in recent months with her culinary accolades, bestselling book, and personal life. All that aside, the food was surprisingly simple but beautifully executed.

We ordered the Rock Shrimp Roll with Old Bay Seasoned Fries and the Duck Breast with Beets. The shrimp was some of the freshest we’d ever tasted. They were so tender and sweet and tasted like they were just plucked from the water. The duck breast had just a touch of sweet smokiness and was cooked to a perfect medium rare. It was simplicity at its best.

Laduree (864 Madison Ave.) – I have been in love with this legendary Parisian macaron giant since my first bite at their Champs Elysees flagship store. Everything about it is over the top but their macarons stand up to the hype with their wonderfully delicate cookie (crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside) and their fragrant flavored fillings. I HAD to make the trek to their new outpost in NYC. This is their first and only store in North America. I’m happy to report that the macarons taste just as good as they did in Paris…except just a tad sweeter (to fit the American palate, unfortunately). They come in a myriad of flavors and colors, but my favorites will always be Cassis, Orange Blossom, and Salted Caramel. Yum…

Pizzarte http://www.pizzarteny.com (69 West 55th St.) – It’s hard to find a distinctive place to eat in the heart of Midtown that’s not touristy, overpriced, or unimaginative. Enter Pizzarte. Though it wasn’t the New York-style pie I was craving, it didn’t disappoint. Their Neapolitan-style Margherita pie had that perfectly charred and chewy crust with a fresh and tangy tomato sauce. And the Warm Burratta with butternut squash and broccoli rabe appetizer my friend and I shared was creamy and comforting.

The interior was clean, stylish and contemporary, and the food was of surprisingly great quality and preparation, which was a great surprise given its kitschy location.

Botkier Sample Sale – My last present to myself came in the form of a beautiful plum handbag that retailed for $600 at Nordstrom, but ended up being only $200 at their company’s sample sale. There were clutches for less than $100, and many bags were only $150. Incredible steal for a designer leather bag. I’m glad I went.

Besides Jake Gyllenhaal (which frankly would’ve been enough), I shared space with Gayle King and the Reverend Al Sharpton earlier that same day. Craziness. I was hoping I’d bump into George Clooney by dinnertime, but no such luck. I think my luck was already pretty good, so I didn’t complain. :)

Fall is pear season…and this is the perfect pear.

“Oh my God, these pears are beyond words! Where can we get some more of these?”

Those were the first words out of my husband’s mouth after tasting his first Warren Pear. The folks at Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood are one of the few farms in the country to grow this specific type since they can be a bit difficult to grow. But it’s SO worth it!

They were nice enough to send me a box to sample since they were blessed with a stellar crop this year. Fall may be apple season to most, but for these guys, it’s the start of pear season.

I had every intention of doing something fun with these pears…like putting them into pre-made pie crust and making a lovely pear galette, placing some slices in a grilled cheese sandwich, or coring them and placing some maple syrup, raisins and cinnamon down the middle to make some perfect baked pears. The texture on these is wonderfully firm so they’d hold up better to baking then some other more common varieties.

But in the end, my husband and toddler couldn’t stay away. I let them have two of the six we received to eat and try and they were instantly hooked. These are simply the perfect pear: ridiculously sugary sweet with a creamy buttery texture and aftertaste. There’s no hint of any grainy, mealy mouthfeel. You have to taste these things to believe it.

Recipe for Frog Hollow Farm/Chez Panisse’s Warren Pear Crisp

You can order these puppies online at http://www.froghollow.com or find them at select Whole Foods Markets. They’re also popping up all over restaurants in the Bay Area.

*This is not a paid post. Free product was received but not in exchange for content.

My Favorite Food Products from BlogHer ’11

Sure there are tons of reasons to visit the BlogHer Annual Conference: great speakers, insightful panels, networking with Fortune 500 brands as well as other like-minded bloggers, not to mention it’s the biggest social media conference for women in the world.

But let’s be honest, many of us love the freebees. This year was no different with 100 sponsors on the expo hall floor. Not every product you’ll try is great, but I’m happy to report that some of them were exceptional.

Here’s my list of a few of my favorite food-related products that I tried and liked, in order.

1) Dannon Oikos Greek Organic Yogurt (NEW) – I LOVED this product. I’ve tried other Greek yogurts and though I like their thick creamy texture, I’ve never been a fan of the tart bite it leaves you with afterwards. This stuff has all the great texture with a smooth creamy aftertaste and much less bite. I believe it when they say it won a taste test against other Greek yogurts. This stuff is awesome and my new favorite.

2) Ella’s Kitchen – These squeezable, portable, all natural, organic fruit pouches for babies and toddlers are different than some similar products on the market. They have no additives: no sugar, salt or even water. It’s made from only 100% organic fruits, veggies and/or rice. They don’t use GMO ingredients either. And best of all, they’re easy to find (Target stores) and my kid loves ‘em. Sold.

3) GladWare “Glad to Go” Containers (NEW) - Everyone knows these reusable yet disposable, microwavable, dishwasher-safe containers that have now become a staple in every kitchen across America. But Glad’s gone one step further with this new version of the product by adding a new detachable 1.5 oz cup that snaps right into the lid. This is perfect for keeping salad dressings separate from your greens, bringing dips to go with your veggies. Genius.

4) Jimmy Dean-Jimmy D’s Breakfast Minis: Turkey Sausage on a Mini Croissant (NEW) - Okay, so this certainly isn’t healthy by any means, but I’m a sucker for a breakfast sandwich. Two of these little puppies are only 230 calories and they give you a good amount of morning protein, which always makes me feel better than eating a bowl full of sugar and carbs.

*This is not a sponsored or paid post.

Review Post: Red Envelope’s Cubist Chips and Dip Set

Cubist Chips & Dip Set $69.95 (image courtesy RedEnvelope.com)

I haven’t ordered something from Red Envelope, the online luxury gifts company, in many years. But what I do remember is that they have a wide selection of high quality, expensive gifts that would be perfect for special occasions and important people in your life. So when the folks at Red Envelope invited me to find and review one of their Memorable Gifts for Dad, I obliged.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.

I received the item in a very timely fashion, but I was disappointed when I’d opened my box. There were some very noticeable greasy green spots right on the front of the gift box that almost looked like olive oil or some other food stains. It would’ve been a bit unseemly if I had actually decided to order the Cubist Chips and Dip tray ($69.95) and send it directly to my Dad. I expected a little bit more attention to detail from them.

It was packed very well and looked nice. The weight of the glass bowls were good and looked of high quality.

However, I wish I could say the same about the wood tray itself. The moment I picked it up I was disappointed. It lacked the weight that good quality wood would have. It was almost flimsy. And then I noticed two long cracks down the length of the tray, one of which was a very noticeable split in the wood. Again, had my Father actually received this for Father’s Day, I would’ve sent it right back. And at almost $70, it was severely overpriced. I could find something for much cheaper that would certainly suffice. It wasn’t good enough for gifting.

So, I will use the tray when I have company come over, but I was extremely disappointed in the presentation and quality of the product. It wasn’t worthy of the quality I had remembered from Red Envelope. I don’t see myself ordering from them again anytime soon, unless I hear of some improvements, overall.

*This is a sponsored post.

Aida Mollenkamp’s Top 11 Spots for Bay Area Foodies

Aida Mollenkamp. Photo by Julie Michelle
Aida Mollenkamp. Photo by Julie Michelle

Recently named one of the eight sexiest women on TV cooking shows, Aida Mollenkamp also happens to have a wealth of culinary expertise and knowledge in addition to being a hot TV food personality.

The host and co-creator of the television show “FoodCrafters” and “Ask Aida” she attended Cornell University and then the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu in Paris where she studied culinary AND pastry arts. She ended up in San Francisco when she became one of the editors of the online food magazine, CHOW. Currently, she’s working on her first cookbook, tentatively titled, “Keys to the Kitchen,” due out in 2012.

She recently took some time out of her hectic schedule to tell me about her love of food and the top spots in the Bay Area she’d recommend for food fiends like herself (that aren’t restaurants).

Elaine: You call yourself a “long-time food fiend.” Where does your love of food come from?

Aida: Oh, that’s a hard one. It’s like asking me why I like to dance (she’s a former classical dancer) — it’s just the way it is and always has been. My family showed me to respect food and through gardening and shopping with my mom, I also learned where my food came from. But, I guess there was this kismet moment in my teen years where I realized that food was like a cipher to understanding various cultures. From that moment on, I’ve looked at cooking as a means of traveling through my tastebuds.

Elaine: Where did the idea for your show “FoodCrafters” come from?

Aida: My friends would say the show is just an extension of how I naturally live as I’m constantly hunting down new tastes and food stories. The real story is that it is a creative collaboration with a producer I worked with on “Ask Aida.” We shared a passion for good quality food and would constantly trade stories about the latest tastes she hunted down in Brooklyn and those I had found in San Francisco. “FoodCrafters” became this natural fit of a show where my passions could be explored while giving the small guy the spotlight as we uncover foods, flavors, and stories from around the nation.

Elaine: You’ve lived in some of the best food areas in the world: Los Angeles, New York, Florence, Paris, and now San Francisco. How is the Bay Area different from all of them, food-wise?

Aida: Each city I’ve lived in has its own culture, and with it, its own food personality. San Francisco’s food scene is integrated into our daily lives in a way that I’ve only seen in Europe, but it’s also decidedly Californian as we’re simultaneously playful, respectful, and creative.

Aida Mollenkamp. Photo by Julie Michelle
Aida Mollenkamp. Photo by Julie Michelle

Elaine: What are the Top Eleven places in the Bay Area that you’d recommend for food lovers?

Aida: Here’s my list:

  1. The Pasta Shop — 1784 Fourth St., Berkeley
    I don’t remember the first time I went to The Pasta Shop, but I do recall that I liked the selection so much I considered convincing them to let me live there. Everything from 4505 Meats‘ chicarrones to sodas I’ve never seen this side of the Atlantic, they do a marked job curating their food and everyone on the staff is highly knowledgeable.
  2. Cheese Plus — 2001 Polk St., S.F.
    When I first moved to SF, I lived in Pacific Heights and would walk to work and quickly got in the habit of making a detour to Cheese Plus. As the name suggests, there’s not just cheese and I’ve also discovered instant favorites like crackers from The Fine Cheese Co. I’d spend the majority of my meager start-up salary on all the treats in there and have my friends laughing that instead of buying designer shoes, I was splurging on rare cheeses.
  3. Bi-Rite Market — 3639-18th St., S.F.
    It’s a 5-minute walk from my place to Bi-Rite Market, so I have become a regular there. In fact, I credit my many trips to Bi-Rite — where I discovered new foods and their backstories — as the source of my idea for FoodCrafters.
  4. Miette Confiserie — 449 Octavia St., S.F.
    With décor right out of the pages of a Roald Dahl book, Miette is as aesthetically pleasing as it is tasty. I lived in Hayes Valley when the confiserie opened and was immediately drawn to the carefully selected sweets, including chocolates from all over the world.
  5. City Beer Store — 1168 Folsom St., S.F.
    I arrived in San Francisco a wine drinker, but have been versed in the world of cocktails and beer thanks to knowledgeable places like City Beer Store, where there are always new beers to discover.
  6. Nest — 2300 Fillmore St., S.F.
    When I first moved to the Bay Area, I was over in Pacific Heights and would longingly walk by the eclectic boutique, Nest, everyday. When CHOW went from print to online, I treated myself by buying a set of hobnail glasses that I’ve kept to this day.
  7. Heritage Culinary Artifacts — Oxbow Market, 610 First St., Napa
    The Ferry Plaza is unparalleled — except perhaps by downtown Napa’s Oxbow Market. There’s an antique store there, Heritage Artifacts, that I became addicted to when we filmed in the market for last fall’s FoodCrafters.
  8. Heath Factory Store — 400 Gate 5 Rd., Sausalito
    Heath has a cult following among the food and prop styling crowd, but it’s not all that affordable unless you go to the factory store. When I first found out about it, I headed over in an absurdly large van thinking there was no way I needed all that space. But a few dollars and a couple of hours later, I filled the van to the brim with boxes and boxes of discounted, yet still gorgeous plateware.
  9. McEvoy Olive Oil Ranch — 5935 Red Hill Rd., Petaluma
    There’s moments when you travel somewhere and the environment has just as much impact as the food. The McEvoy Olive Oil farm in Sonoma is one of those places. But be warned: by the end of their tour, you may be considering olive oil farming as a new career.
  10. The Marshall Store — 19225 California 1, Marshall
    Definitely the farthest I’ve ever driven for oysters, The Marshall Store is as out of the way as it comes but is worth the trek. Fresh oysters, tangy BBQ sauce, and cold beer — need I say more?
  11. The Tourist Club — 30 Ridge Ave., Mill Valley
    It’s the hidden gems of the Bay Area that make it ever more interesting and Tourist Club is one of those very places. A few miles deep into the Muir Woods, the Tourist Club is a century-old German brauhaus that is closed to the public, except for a few hours each weekend. After an exhausting hike of Mt. Tam, there’s nothing better than pitchers of draft beer with friends on the Tourist Club’s sunny deck.

*Cross posted on Bay Area Bites

Sheri’s Berries Review

*This is a sponsored post.

Full Dozen Hand-Dipped Berry Medley from Sharis Berries.

The folks at Sheri’s Berries were nice enough to offer me a box of their Berry Medley, which had several various chocolate dipped and yogurt strawberries. The company carries a wide variety of chocolate dipped strawberry gift ideas, cookies and other sweets that are great for gifting.

The box contained six yogurt covered strawberries that had lemon, orange, strawberry, peanut butter, coconut and chocolate flavored accents, along with six chocolate covered ones with nuts, chocolate chips and peanut butter and yogurt adornments.

The berries covered in chocolate were good, but not exceptional. I’d prefer if they were all covered in a higher quality dark chocolate, or a chocolate blend that didn’t have hydrogenated oils. It would both taste and look much better.

I will say, however, that their yogurt covered berries were delicious. I liked that it was something you wouldn’t normally think of and find. And the strawberries themselves were big, juicy and sweet. They were bright red and delicious.

Personally, I find flowers and fruit baskets a bit run-of-the-mill, so these are a great alternative.

*Sheri’s Berries – http://www.sherisberries.com

Foodies Have Their Pick of Online Coupon Sites

collage of online coupon websites

Courtesy of Bay Area Bites/Wendy Goodfriend

It’s no secret that online coupons are exploding in popularity, especially for foodies looking to spend less on a great meal. I’ve purchased more than my fair share. And a recent study released by BlogHer even states that 51% of all women online are using coupon sites like Groupon and LivingSocial.

However, a recent New York Times article discussed whether restaurants actually benefit from the online coupon trend. It seems to be a trade-off with some establishments finding them a positive marketing tool while others claiming the discounts do not boost profits.

Let’s breakdown the different types of online coupon sites recently popular with food lovers.

Sites like Scoutmob and Blackboard Eats offer users a discount passcode to various eateries that they can access on their mobile phones and use the next time they frequent that business. There’s no pre-purchasing a certificate or gift card, involved. Blackboard Eats, however, does charge $1 for each passcode you want, or a fee of $20 for unlimited access to their discounts for one year.

Restaurant.com allows you to purchase gift certificates to a large list of pre-determined restaurants affiliated with the site, at a huge discount. Many times, you can find a discount code online for up to 80% off the listed price, which can bring a $25 gift certificate down to $5. There are many restrictions, though, and they differ with each restaurant, so it pays to read the fine print before you confirm your order.

That brings us to sites like DealPulp, TownHog, LivingSocial and Groupon, which require you to pre-pay for a largely discounted deal at a variety of different merchants, including eateries. Deals are usually 50% off or more, and have less restrictions than a certificate from Restaurant.com. Deals change daily, so you have a limited amount of time to purchase it.

There have been horror stories of some merchants being overwhelmed by the popularity of their online coupon or discount, and not being able to handle the response. But the owner of Milkshake Werks, Leslie Widmann in Redwood Shores had a great experience working with one of these sites.

“Groupon helped us set up a structure that would be good for our business. It was a great experience for us. The result was almost instant increased awareness of our business. Even folks who didn’t purchase the offer came by because they didn’t know about us. Now many of them are regulars.”

But success in the world of online coupons for a merchant doesn’t necessarily translate into dollars. It’s more about marketing.

Widmann explains, “You have to look at it in terms of effective advertising and where you’re going to spend your ad and marketing dollars. We’ve done some print ads and the effect was very subtle. The urgency and instant name recognition of a site like Groupon sparks excitement and people feel like they have to take advantage of the deal right away.”

Scoutmob’s social media manager, Nicole Jayne, has a similar theory for why online coupon sites are so successful.

“In the past, for a local small business, the only advertising options they had were billboards, radio, television and print. There was no real way to measure the success of that type of marketing. Online coupon sites allow these businesses to measure the effectiveness of getting their name out there almost instantly and translate that into traffic and revenue.”

There’s also no doubt the popularity of these sites is due in part to the recession and unstable economy. However, couponing is no flash in the pan trend, says Denise Tanton, the senior community manager at BlogHer. She, herself, recently started writing a popular series of blog posts about extreme couponing. “I started noticing couponing blogs more and thought this was a new trend. But after researching, I realized it wasn’t new, it’s just that the media has caught on because of the recession. And now TLC has latched on to it with a new show.”

She says coupons have been popular since the seventies. Even with the slowly improving economy, coupons will never go away, just evolve.

“I think we’re going to see more e-coupons, texted and mobile coupons. As smartphones become more pervasive, we’ll see more companies offering digital and smartphone based coupons. Companies will get more control over their offers that way.”

As for the money-saving food lover like me, there are three rules I live by before I hit “purchase”:

  1. Would I actually go to this eatery, even if I didn’t have this coupon? If I don’t answer yes, I’m out.
  2. Did I read the fine print? Some of these places don’t allow you to use your offer on a Friday or Saturday, have restricted times, or have expiration dates that are sooner than you’d like.
  3. It’s not a deal, unless you actually use it.