TrendWire, October 2011

TrendWire, October 2011

Food & Drink

TrendWire, October 2011


The Food Channel Trendwire
October 2011 •

Why Do So Many Restaurant Websites Stink?

The chatter about restaurant websites heated up late this summer when Slate magazine slammed the hospitality industry for what it called “overdone” sites. The article by Farhad Manjoo had a subtitle that was none too subtle. It asked, “Why are restaurant websites so horrifically bad?

Why indeed? Well, the consensus seems to be that restaurant websites try to be too sexy, too over-the-top, when most site visitors mainly want to have a look at the menu, check on the hours, and figure out how to get to the place.

Slate’s Manjoo pokes fun at the website for Hubert Keller’s San Francisco restaurant, Fleur de Lys, which features a nearly full-screen animation of his autograph, along with snappy photos of the chef, and links to Keller’s other eateries and his PBS TV show. Then there’s the autoplaying music—ambient techno-smooth jazz—that kicks in. Eventually, after sitting through way too much “loading…,” you’re able to find the menu.

The article also cites other offending sites, including New York’s Buddakan (like an Inception trailer) and Houston’s Cavatore, described as looking like it was created by designers on a Monty Python acid trip. Manjoo even pans the websites for such highly regarded establishments as Napa Valley’s Chez Panisse and Chicago’s esteemed Alinea.

Far too many restaurants, especially the higher-end establishments, try to entertain the website visitor with flash graphics, music, and ego-driven chef biographies.

And far too often, the websites are simply inaccurate. Omnivore blogger Cliff Bostock writes about his visit to Atlanta’s Wisteria. When he arrived, the valet told Bostock he had three and a half minutes to get in the door before the place closed. The restaurant had failed to note on its website that the place would close at 9 p.m. that night, rather than at website-listed 10 p.m. In another blog, he asks, “Why do so many restaurants not include their (damn) hours of operation” in the first place? That’s annoying to say the least. He calls out two Atlanta-area restaurants that had absolutely no mention of the places’ hours.

Part of the blame probably goes to the web designers. They make more money when they create a website with a lot of bells and whistles. And, hey, it’s always a good bet to stroke a chef’s ego with a great head shot portrait that zooms or tumbles into view over a jazzy guitar solo. But most savvy web designers know that all that flash animation and autoplay music became passé, oh, about 1999.

At blog site The Oatmeal, we found a straightforward article in which the writer lists “What I want from a restaurant website.” The writer simply want to see the…

  • Menu
  • Specials and happy hour info. Including social promotions such as Foursquare, Groupon and Twitter specials.
  • Address with a link to Google maps
  • Online reservation that actually works (instead of one where I make a reservation online, show up, and the hostess gives me a blank, confused stare when I tell her my name).
  • Hours of operation, parking and contact info

The writer follows that up with an amusing graphic depicting “What I get instead” featuring an image of people laughing while eating, along with callouts complaining that the menu is only downloadable as a 90 megabyte PDF file…that you can’t copy and paste anything because it’s in flash…that the site includes a letter from the founder that no one wants to read…etc.

Attempting to answer its own question as to why so many restaurant websites “suck,” Slate’s Manjoo writes, “Restaurant sites are the product of restaurant culture. These nightmarish websites were spawned by restaurateurs who mistakenly believe they can control the online world the same way they lord over a restaurant.”

The writer does, finally, acknowledge a few of the better restaurant websites, saluting the steakhouse chain Morton’s for its mobile site that uses your GPS location to get you information on the restaurant closest to you, and Jimmy, a rooftop bar at the James Hotel in New York’s Soho area. After viewing this clean, minimalist site featuring great photography, I’ve decided to put Jimmy at the top of my list of places to visit on my next trip to Gotham.

Going forward, the simple answer for restaurateurs seems to be…keep it simple. Make your site user-friendly. Make sure all the pertinent information is there, and please go easy on the fancy stuff. As it is with your culinary creations, sometimes less is more.

Gourmet Mayo: The New Cool Condiment

A growing number of chefs are experimenting with mayonnaise these days, transforming the often overlooked creamy white spread into yet another concoction that uses the descriptor “artisanal.”

Your basic run-of-the-mill mayonnaise is an emulsion of egg yolk, oil and acid—typically vinegar or lemon juice. Creative chefs today are going well beyond adding chipotle spice. Dining out, you’re liable to encounter mayo blended with smoked paprika, chorizo or molé.

The upscaling of mayonnaise is part of a “condiment revolution” according to Elizabeth Valleau. Along with partner and chef Sam Mason, she’ll soon be opening Empire Mayonnaise, a kitchen and retail space in Brooklyn, N.Y., that will offer nothing but “luxury mayonnaise.” The shop, opening in November, will offer around 40 flavor varieties including fennel, black garlic, foie gras, Indian lime pickle, mushroom and nori.

Empire Mayonnaise plans to offer several holiday selections, too, such as pumpernickel, spicy cinnamon, and rosemary-thyme.

The Empire artisanal mayos come, as you might expect, with an upscaled price: about $5 for a four-ounce jar, while “black label” choices with ingredients such as quail egg, white truffle, and pistachio go for $7 each.

The fact is, plain old mayonnaise, such as that offered by Hellmann’s, has become the top-selling condiment in America, outselling salsa which had held the top spot since 2006, according to SymphonyIRI Group. Mayo today is a whopping $1.3 billion business in the U.S.

Mayonnaise is huge in Canada, too, outselling ketchup and mustard, as reported in a story in The Globe and Mail . It’s often served there as a dip with casual fare, such as fries.

Canadian restaurants are getting creative with the stuff as well. Wvrst, a “sausage hall” in downtown Toronto, carries 10 different flavor varieties including maple rosemary, malt, and curry.

At Buddha Dog in Picton, Ontario, owner Andrew Mackenzie has experimented with some 200 condiments over the last six years, using such ingredients as wild leek, garlic scrape, berry, pesto, roasted garlic, beet, and horseradish.

North America may just be catching up with Europe, when it comes to mayo appreciation. In France, it’s thought of as the ultimate condiment, and that sentiment is mostly shared across the continent.

And many of us remember when the fun folks behind Bacon Salt introduced Baconnaise a couple of years ago, to much fanfare and more than a dollop or two of ridicule. Well, looks like maybe those guys were ahead of the curve in this evolving category.

Servers Seek Tipping Standard of 25%

There were media reports earlier this month that restaurant servers in San Francisco were seeking to have 25% adopted as the standard tip amount for service.

While it was initially reported by the Contra Costa Times that this was an organized effort backed by some area restaurants, it now appears that this was simply an opinion expressed by several restaurant workers who were interviewed. The newspaper issued a retraction.

But it raises the age old question, what is a fair tip to leave for good service at a sit-down restaurant? Should 25% become the unofficial “standard” tip?

For most diners today, the usual tip seems to be between 15% and 20%. According to the restaurant review source ZAGAT, the average tip is now 19.2%, having creeped up a fraction in the last couple years.

When the “25% tipping standard” story first broke, most consumers interviewed were opposed to the tip hike, saying that 25% went too far. One person commented, “Tips should be earned, not expected.” Another said, “The government puts 15 percent as the tax tab for individuals getting tips. Does anyone really think restaurant workers will admit to the additional income and report it to the IRS? I’m sticking with 15 percent as my restaurant tip.”

But there were some supporters of the proposal. “Given the state of the economy, I think 25% is not unreasonable,” Valerie Green of Oakley, Calif., said. “I usually do 20 percent, but everyone needs some extra money now and I’m all for it. I’m going to go with 25 percent starting with my next meal out.”

The CNNMoney website publishes a quick guide, provided by the etiquette people at the Emily Post Institute. Here are its guidelines.

  • Waiter/waitress: 15% of bill (excl. tax) for adequate service; 20% for very good service; no less than 10% for poor service
  • Headwaiter/captain: often gets a cut of table server’s tip; so tip your server extra to reward captain, or tip captain separately
  • Sommelier or wine steward: 15% of cost of the bottle
  • Bartender: 15% to 20% of the tab, with a minimum of 50 cents per soft drink, $1 per alcoholic drink

Tipping is generally seen as a reward for good service, but there are other underlying reasons, according to Cornell professor Michael Lynn, who has studied tipping behavior for two decades.

“The major reason people tip,” according to Lynn, “is to avoid social disapproval.”

Lynn found that the quality of service had little to do with how much of a tip people left on the table—a variability of around 4%. He did find that people tend to tip more on a sunny day.

Tipping is also a way for the equality-minded to feel less guilty about being served, Lynn says.

Psychology aside, tipping is part of the cost of a meal out. It’s not really optional, even though the amount is discretionary. And the next time you’re tempted to leave a tiny tip for a surly server, think about this: a tip is often shared by the busboy, bartender, and hostess. When you leave your server a lousy tip, you’re probably punishing them all.

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