BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Healthy Decadence

There’s a real art in finding the delicate balance between want and need, sweet and savory, austere and indulgent. All too often battling cravings that fall on the more hedonistic side of the scale, reaching some semblance of middle ground is especially important for this constant snacker. Grazing through my day with the greatest of ease, finding that ideal combination that will satisfy both my sweet tooth and my hunger is always the goal, but rarely the result of endless pantry raids throughout the day.

Inspired by yet another excellent new protein powder kindly provided as a sample by Ka’Chava, rather than just drink my superfoods straight, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get in the kitchen and play around. Energy bars were a natural first though, but too obvious, too easy to get excited about. Healthy, protein-packed fudge, though? Now that’s a wholesome treat one could lust after.

Rich, but not overwhelmingly so, crunchy cacao nibs punctuate the soft texture, much like chocolate chips strewn through unbaked cookie dough. A thin sheet of dark, slightly bitter chocolate caps off each small square with just the right extra dose of decadence, although it’s strictly optional if you’re more of a protein purist. Eaten straight out of the fridge, there are few tastier yet still healthy tidbits out there that can power me through a long day.

Protein Fudge

1 Cup Raw Cashews, Soaked for 4 – 6 Hours
1/2 Cup Coconut Oil, Melted
1/3 Cup Coconut Sugar
1 Packet (58.5g) Ka’Chava Chocolate Protein Powder
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Cup Cacao Nibs

To Finish:

3 Ounces Dark Chocolate, Finely Chopped
1 Teaspoon Coconut Oil, Melted

Thoroughly drain your cashews before tossing them into your blender. A high-speed blender is recommended for this recipe to ensure the smoothest texture possible, but as long as you’re patient with a lower-powered model and let it process for a bit longer, the recipe shouldn’t suffer. Add in the melted coconut oil, coconut sugar, protein powder, vanilla, and salt, and start the machine on the lowest setting to begin breaking down the cashews. Slowly increase the speed until you reach the highest setting, using the plunger to keep the contents of the blender all moving towards the blade, or pausing to scrape down the sides of the container, as needed. It may take some time for everything to combine smoothly, without any residual cashew pieces or graininess to be found.

Meanwhile, line an 8 x 4-inch loaf pan with foil, lightly grease, and set aside.

Once your fudge mixture is thoroughly blended, stir in the cacao nibs by hand to evenly distribute them throughout. Transfer everything to your prepared pan and use a wide spatula to smooth out the top. Place the pan on a flat surface in your freezer to begin solidifying.

To finish off your fudge, place the finely chopped chocolate in a microwave-safe dish and heat for 60 seconds. Stir thoroughly until all of the chocolate is melted and no pieces remain. If necessary, continue microwaving at intervals of 30 seconds, stirring well after each one, until perfectly smooth. Retrieve the fudge from the freezer, pour the melted chocolate all over the top, and spread it out evenly so that it covers the entire pan. Return the pan of fudge to the freezer and let rest, undisturbed, for at least 3 hours.

Using the foil as a sling, pull the fudge out of the loaf pan and slice into small squares with a very sharp knife. To make cleaner cuts through the chocolate topping, first run the knife under very hot water and dry thoroughly before making your first incision.

Store in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for up to 1 month.

Makes 16 – 20 Small Squares

Printable Recipe


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Wish I Was There

Whipping bitterly cold gusts of air against my exposed skin, the wind howled mercilessly, landing a barrage of freezing punches from all directions. Inescapable, unrelenting, this assault makes each step outside feel like a mile away. Winter in New England can be a challenge to cope with on the best of days, and through the eyes of a SAD-sufferer, no day is a good day. Days blur, sloppily, slowly, into one ugly mess of endless slush, ice, and darkness.

Lighting the way through these murky moments is the promise of imminent escape. Having the foresight to book a ticket back to Hawaii while airfare was still reasonable was the smartest impulse buy (not to mention the most expensive) I made all year. Memories of warmth, sun, and genuine happiness fuel a stubborn persistence to keep hanging on just a little while longer. White-knuckling it through the stress of final exams and bleakness of winter’s descent, the day of departure simply can’t come soon enough.

In the meantime, the tastes of Hawaii provide some small comfort, a tiny tropical oasis in the midst of less favorable conditions. Turning back to those incredible macadamia nuts that I had been saving for a rainy day, stashed way back in the depths of the freezer for safe keeping, savory inspiration pulled me away from my standard palate of sweet ingredients.

Seeking something light and bright to contrast with all of the other, heavier comfort foods keeping me afloat, quinoa proved an ideal canvas to paint the colors of Honolulu upon. That concept turned out quite literally, as dried hibiscus blossoms (the official state flower) and red beet juice stained the white grains a dainty shade of dusty rose. Buttery macadamias and a generous splash of coconut milk lend richness to the otherwise lean pilaf, balancing the opposing desires for clean flavors and soothing touches of decadence. Flavored simply with a backdrop of garlic and scallions, the floral infusion is what sets the dish apart. Each bite brings back visions of brilliant blooms, stretching upwards to kiss the cloudless blue sky.

Although it won’t stop me from counting the days until my Hawaiian adventures begin anew, a heaping helping of warm quinoa does help time pass at least a little bit more easily- And certainly much more deliciously.

Mahalo Macadamia Quinoa Pilaf

2 1/3 Cups Water
6 Dried Whole Hibiscus Blossoms, or 6 Bags Hibiscus Tea
1 14-Ounce Can (1 3/4 Cups) Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1/4 Cup Red Beet Juice or Puree (Optional, for Color)
1/2 – 1 Teaspoon Salt
2 Cups Raw Quinoa
1 Cup Macadamia Nuts, Coarsely Chopped
1 Tablespoon Coconut Oil
1 Large Sweet Onion, Diced
4 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Large Scallion, Thinly Sliced

Place the water and hibiscus blossoms or tea bags in a large saucepan over medium heat, and bring the water to a boil. Cover, remove the pot from the stove, and allow the tea to steep for about 30 minutes.

Squeeze out and discard the spent blossoms or tea bags. Return the pot to the stove and introduce the coconut milk, beet juice or puree, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring the liquids to a full boil before adding in the quinoa. Cover and turn down the heat to low, keeping the contents of the pot at a gentle simmer. Cook for 16 – 20 minutes, until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the quinoa is tender. Turn off the heat but keep covered for 10 minutes to steam and finish cooking.

Meanwhile, toss the macadamia nuts into a dry skillet over medium heat, and stir constantly until they’re lightly toasted and smelling irresistibly nutty. Quickly transfer to the pot of quinoa to prevent them from burning and lightly wipe out the skillet.

Melt the oil to the skillet before adding in the onion and garlic. Saute, stirring periodically, until golden brown all over. Transfer to the pot of quinoa, along with the pepper and scallion. Mix thoroughly to combine and distribute the nuts and onions evenly throughout the quinoa. Stir in additional salt to taste, if desired.

Serve immediately while still warm, or chill for at least four hours for a refreshing cold salad.

Makes 6 – 8 Side Dish Servings

Printable Recipe


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Wild Winter Wonderland

Change up the usual festive flavors and think blue this holiday season! Before you hit palate fatigue from pumpkin pie-spiced everything, reach to the freezer for inspiration and invite Wild Blueberries back to the party. Even as the days go by and winter tightens its grip, frozen Wild Blueberries are still not only available but convenient, since they’ll stay icily preserved until inspiration strikes, and of course, just as sweet and delicious as ever. I’m not alone in my Wild Blueberry holiday plans, as two other very talented bloggers have joined me in developing some festive, true blue treats to celebrate the season.

Together, with the help of Wild Blueberries, we banded together to create a delicious free e-book with seven irresistible recipes, both sweet and savory, to help inspire some new holiday traditions.

My contributions start with a sweet and simple drink. It may not look like much more than a standard mug of hot chocolate, but beneath that steamy surface hides a rich, blue secret. Wild Blueberries and chai tea spice things up together, contributing both a warming and fresh, fruity flavor unlike any other cocoa combination I’ve ever tried. Wild Blueberry Chai-Spiced Hot Chocolate is a snap to whip up after a rough day out in the freezing cold, and is sure to take the chill off instantly.

Heading over to the savory side of the street, a quick Wild Blueberry jam infused with fresh sage is sure to surprise and delight. Perfect to smear on crackers and enjoy unadorned, or pack into pretty glass jars to give away as gifts, this is an intense, flavorful spread that masterfully balances sweet, savory, sour, salty, and herbal tastes in every bite. Of course, you can also dress it up for your next big shindig by creating Wild Blueberry Crostini.

Lightly toasted slices of baguette are topped with creamy pistachio ricotta, serving as the perfect foil to the flavorful jam. Finish the whole thing off with a sprinkle of crunchy whole pistachios, and guests may not be able to save room for dinner itself.

Stock up on a bag or two of frozen Wild Blueberries and go check out the whole free e-book for these recipes and more. I don’t know about you, but now I’m dreaming of a blue Christmas…

This post was written for and is sponsored by Wild Blueberries, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.


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Monstrous Munchies

Halloween is right around the corner, but if you haven’t yet figured out your snacking strategy for when the moon rises and the creatures of the night emerge, don’t panic! Rather than reaching for a protective head of garlic, I say go for the sweets and invite those monsters right on in. They’ll feel perfectly at home when you present them with a heaping bowlful of gloriously green Matcha Monster Munch.

Candied green tea popcorn, tossed with crunchy pepitas and drenched in a generous drizzle of dark chocolate is a treat to tempt even the most distasteful beasts. Perfect for a party or just a quiet night of answering the doorbell for trick-or-treaters, it’s a snack that’s as irresistible as it is vibrant.

Quick, jump on your broomstick and fly over to the recipe on Go Dairy Free, before the witching hour is over!


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Beyond Meat; Beyond Expectations

Decades of stigma and misunderstanding are finally giving way to a more tolerant, open-minded approach to the murky waters of “fake meat.” Even NPR has taken note that more omnivores are willingly eschewing meat in favor of vegan alternatives these days. Though I’d like to believe that this shift can be attributed to a better understanding of factory farms and generally being able to access greater compassion to our feathered, furry, and scaled friends, I know that it all boils down to one thing at the end of the day: Taste. Innovations in the field have brought forth tastier creations than ever before, and suddenly, meat alternatives have become a painless way to eat healthier, without sacrificing flavor. Whatever the reason, convincing those outside of the vegan and vegetarian community to eat more cruelty-free foods can only be a good thing for everyone involved. Since my own approach to cooking puts flavor first, I’ve benefited greatly from the latest and greatest plant-based proteins, too.

A real game-changer in the industry is Beyond Meat, a company that’s made headlines numerous times for winning over Bittman, garnering support from Twitter’s Biz Stone, and unnerving longtime vegetarians for their similarity to actual poultry products. Serving up only chicken-style alternatives, this stuff is the real deal, at least as far as “fake” meat goes.

Right from my first encounter, it was abundantly clear that Beyond Meat was in a category all its own, creating an entirely different protein experience than one would find in traditional meatless mains, such as tofu, tempeh, or seitan. For one, it smells crazily, disturbingly, genuinely like cooked chicken. Even though I haven’t eaten meat in years now, I’m still exposed to those preparing and consuming it, and that previously inimitable scent really threw me through a loop. Firm but easily yielding to the tooth, the texture is where it really shines. Far from the rubbery, chewy, or latex-y consistency of previous faux meat options, the strips shred in a very authentic way, mimicking the grain of cooked chicken. Though this may put off staunch vegans who don’t miss the experience of eating meat one bit, it’s a big selling point for everyone else.

Lightly Seasoned is like a blank canvas; borderline bland, like plain roasted or broiled chicken breast. Ideal for soaking up any sauce or marinade, there are no competing or off flavors that would giveaway the soy base. Lean, non-fatty (“skinless”), the pieces are reminiscent of a light, white meat sort of taste. This was perfect for fulfilling my longtime craving for a bowlful of soothing chicken soup with rice. Tenderizing in the hot broth and soaking in the deeply savory bouillon, it was so unbelievably meaty, I wouldn’t have trusted its vegan label if I hadn’t prepared it myself.

Grilled is very similar to the prior option, now sporting attractive black grill marks that only a practiced hand would be able to achieve at home. Subtly smoky, woodsy, and bearing a charred essence on a lightly peppered backdrop, the hassle of pulling out your own grill is taken out of the picture. Sturdy enough to stay firmly in place on skewers, I was delighted to turn my seared strips into yakitori, a savory delight that hasn’t passed my lips in nearly a decade now. Too simple to consider as a true recipe, all you need is a batch of sauce to dip the “chicken” into, which goes something like this:

1/4 Cup Mirin
1/4 Cup Reduced-Sodium Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Grated Fresh Ginger
3 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Teaspoon Arrowroot

Vigorously whisk all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat, breaking up any clumps of starch should they form. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes up to a full boil. Remove from the heat and enjoy immediately.

Finally, Southwestern spices up Beyond Meat’s offerings with a chipotle and lime-spiked base. Defined by a gentle but discernible kick, the subtle burn grows with each successive bite. By the end of the meal, you may very well find your lips tingling, and not in an unpleasant way. Unfortunately, this heat doesn’t add much in the way of nuanced flavor, and overpowers the inherently chicken-like flavor that one might be craving from such a product. Though perfectly tasty, it strikes me as a waste to cover up the masterfully crafted taste of this unique protein base. I probably wouldn’t buy it again, simply because a sough a purer “chicken” experience, but it was undeniably delicious in a layered chicken taco salad. Composed of pico de gallo, shredded romaine, sliced olives, tortilla strips, and of course, Southwestern chicken-free strips chopped into cubes all packed into glass jars, this meal became an ideal impromptu picnic.

A radical departure from the crunchy-granola “hippy” foods of only a decade or two ago, Beyond Meat is making meatless living more possible for those who may not have even considered the option before. Anyone even moderately curious about trying another protein alternative would be doing themselves a disservice not to check these chicken-less strips out- I have yet to hear any negative feedback, from professional food reviewers and my own omnivorous dinner mates alike.


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Sweet Relief

National Ice Cream Day, decreed to fall on the third Sunday of July, couldn’t have come at a better time. Still grappling with a week-long heat wave that stubbornly refuses to break or bend, keeping cool is the top priority for anyone living on the east coast. Though always a favorite treat no matter the weather, my appetite for ice cream really kicks into high gear during the dog days of summer, and this year’s sweltering forecast has prompted the same hunger to return with a vengeance.

Well over a year has passed since Vegan a la Mode was published, and yet I can’t stop churning up new flavors. Case in point, the Peach Pie Ice Cream pictured above was inspired by the abundance of explosively ripe stone fruits sitting on the kitchen counter, combined with my new focus on pies. Tender fragments of buttery pie crust are tossed in cinnamon and sugar before being baked to an even golden-brown. Nestled in between lashings of gooey peach jam, each scoopful of peach ice cream tastes like a creamier, cooler version of its namesake. Don’t wait until the next heat wave to add this refreshing yet decadent dessert to you to-do list: Grab the recipe on GoDairyFree.org and start churning as soon as your peaches are ripe!


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Viva Vida Vegan!


Photo by Liz Crowe

Talk about a whirlwind trip. With so much good food, inspiring information, and of course, lovely people, all crammed into the space of a long weekend, it was stimulation overload for an introvert like myself. It may take me twice as long to fully recover, easing back into the normal routine, but that disruption was more than worth making time for, to say the least.

Until I can gather my thoughts on Portland at large and the amazing eateries I managed to visit, I wanted to share some details from my workshop on food styling. Thank you so much to everyone who made it into the room! I’m sad to have suggested a cap on attendance, having heard so many people were turned away, but that’s one mistake I won’t make again. In case you missed out or managed to sneak in but couldn’t get a handout, here’s the list of the tools that go into my kit. Print at will and use it well!

It was a bit crazed, compressing so much information into just 45 minutes, although I did go over a bit (Sorry, Isa!) which is why I’m very grateful that Liz managed to get a nice shot of my fully styled Pad Thai. To recap, a few of the tips that went into converting that mountain of noodles from sad leftovers into the above blog-worthy plate are as follows…

  • Put dots of sauce on the plate (or pour a bit into a small, separate dipping bowl for a less fancy presentation) if you’d like it to really stand out from the dish. Apply this with an eyedropper for better control.
  • Deconstruct your dish and pick out the key elements. I really homed in on the baked tofu cubes here, since that seemed like the most interesting ingredient in the mixture. As you build the plate, strategically weave them back in so that they’re front and center, without looking as if you specifically placed them there.
  • Dab soy sauce onto foods with a paintbrush (never used on paint) for a darker golden-brown hue.
  • Toss noodles with oil so that they glisten and pick up eye-catching highlights.
  • Add color- Reach for bold, contrasting colors to brighten up a drab dish. Fresh herbs and vegetables are always a good route to go down. (I used scallions, purple cabbage, and microgreens in this case.) Make sure it makes sense, too! Don’t just add ingredients for the sake of design, if they have discordant flavors with your dish.
  • To make a citrus zest spiral, pare away a long, thin strip of zest from any citrus and trim the sides so that they’re even. Wrap the strip around a plastic straw in a spiral, securing the top and bottom each with a straight pin. Let it sit in the freezer for at least 15 minutes and then use it quickly! It will uncoil as it thaws. Since I didn’t have a freezer handy here, I simply went with a little lime twist on the side. For that, cut a thin round out of the widest part of the lime (or any citrus) and then cut a slit at the bottom, between two segments, stopping at the center. Twist the cut edges in opposite directions and set it on the plate.
  • Remember, food styling is about controlled chaos. When adding cashew halves on top, I let them fall where they may to keep it looking realistic. Make a plate look too perfect and it won’t have the same appetite appeal.
  • Add the most perishable ingredients last. That meant the microgreens here, which I did add one by one for equal distribution.
  • On that note, be patient! Build each plate carefully and deliberately.

Thank you to everyone who saw it happen in person! I couldn’t have hoped for a more gracious, engaged audience. It was your feedback that has encouraged me to seek out future demo opportunities in the future, so you certainly haven’t seen the last of me yet.


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It’s Easy Being Green

Some of my most popular posts have been focused on finding natural alternatives to food coloring, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Colors make drab foods fun, increase appetite appeal, and everyone can agree that the fewer chemically-enhanced edibles on the market, the better.

St. Patrick’s day in particular has many people feeling a bit green around the edges. Being that I’m not Irish and don’t drink, my only strong associations with the holiday date back to the elementary school cafeteria, where the milk and bagels were dyed brilliant, neon green for the holiday. Oh, what fun it is to receive a meal that looks suspiciously moldy- Now that’s a real party! I can’t say I sorely miss that tradition, but it’s so laughably easy to offer a natural alternative to those artificial hues, I feel no compunctions about going green on any day of the year.

You have a whole range of green options, depending on the depth and intensity desired, all of them generally accessible and easy to use. To illustrate my point and add a bit of emerald cheer to this festive weekend, the above layer cake was baked using three separate natural green tints; one in each layer. For anyone who knows the usual suspects, can you guess what’s responsible for each separate shade? Take your time, and don’t cheat! Skip ahead for the answers…

Continue reading


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The Writing on the Wall, Part Three

If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Facebook, the reason for this jarring departure in blog content should be no secret by now. Just one last literary tidbit before I return home, and then I’ll have plenty of new stories to share- Involving food and recipes, yes! Thanks for bearing with me and providing such insightful comments all along. To complete this trio of essays, I’ll leave you with a general overview of the less romantic side of the hospitality industry… The expenses and the odds of survival.

Risky Business

It’s a dream shared by many office workers caught up in the drudgery of a thankless job: to leave their thankless positions, open up a restaurant, and share their favorite foods within the community sounds like a gig that’s too good to be true. Unfortunately, in most cases, it is. Restaurants can be the most difficult type of small business to start and become financially successful. It’s been estimated that within the first three years of operation, over 60% of all new restaurants in the US will have already failed and closed. There are many reasons that a restaurant may go under, but some of the most common culprits include the astronomical start up costs, a very competitive market place where big industry still rules, and profit margins that are very slim in the best of situations. It is certainly possible to run a profitable restaurant, as numerous small businesses throughout the country have proven, but that success is hard-won and well deserved. While any small business is a difficult endeavor, restaurants especially pose some of the greatest risks, and least promising returns.

There’s a good reason why restaurateurs frequently solicit investors to help get their concept off the ground, and it has to do with steep cost of turning their ideas into concrete reality. Rental fees for the space itself are just the start, but a prime location can quickly take a big bite out of the budget. A street-front store is more than just convenient; it’s almost like free advertising, since passersby are more likely to notice it and drop by on a whim. The financial hit may be hard to swallow, and other expenses can be taken on slowly, upgrading equipment as is possible, but a location can’t be changed without incurring even greater costs. The equipment, however, is no small expense either. Buying used can save a bit of money, but even the most basic set of tools such as ovens, refrigerators, and pans is liable to set one back between $100,000 – $300,000. That’s presuming that high-end specialty items aren’t needed, like fancy espresso machines or crystal-clear ice cube makers.

Banks are becoming increasingly reluctant to take a gamble and offer loans to newcomers in the restaurant business due to their high rate of failure. A rookie mistake would be to mortgage one’s home; it’s a move doomed to create further money woes in the future, or at the very least, put undue stress on anyone worried about losing it all. It’s important that one be financially stable before quitting one’s day job just so that they can break into the field. On top of the aforementioned start-up costs, don’t forget, there are expensive permits to cover, such as insurance, a liquor license, and food handlers permits for every employee hired. It can add up very quickly. After all that, there’s not even been a mention of the raw materials themselves- The food!

Food prices are at an all-time high all over the globe. Just in the past year, coffee and peanut-butter prices rose 19% and 27%, respectively. No one has been feeling that strain more acutely than those in the restaurant business. Although buying wholesale through specialty purveyors who deal only with restaurants will save money over buying food at retail prices, it’s a constant expense that will always need to be accounted for. Prices rise only higher for organic food, which can be a big selling point these days, but may or may not be worth the investment, depending on one’s customer base. Sometimes menus must be limited due to the costs of certain ingredients, which may spoil the original concepts of some owners. Luxury items like truffles or saffron can add up very quickly on their own, and most customers won’t be willing to make up the difference in the final bill. Immense pressure has been put on restaurateurs to keep costs down and offer affordable meals in this economic environment, so it can be incredibly challenging to formulate a menu that will strike potential consumers as a good deal, and still bring in a profit. On any given check for a full-service restaurant, after factoring in the costs of food, labor, and other incidentals, one can only expect to make between 1.8% to 3.5% profit in most cases. At that rate, it’s easy to see how it could truly take years to merely pay for the start-up costs and break even, let alone actually make a living wage.

Any additional competition added to the restaurant scene can cause strain on even established eateries, but that pressure is tenfold when national chains move in next door. In the race to offer the most affordable options, no one has the market cornered quite like restaurants franchises, and especially fast food establishments. Value menus are a boon to both indiscriminate eaters and the executives that think them up, because chains are able to buy very cheap food at incredible volumes so that each serving will cost them pennies, if that. Almost everything that the customer pays for is pure profit. Healthy food is more expensive, and that can be a deal breaker for some people, which in turn makes competition with these kings of cheap food near impossible for many new eateries, especially quick-serve establishments that fall in about the same category.

As romantic as the notion of opening up a restaurant from scratch may sound, the reality of the endeavor almost never matches up to the dream. The expenses that must be taken care of before the doors are even opened on a new restaurant typically are largely beyond what most newcomers would ever imagine, and are subsequently unprepared to take them on, even with the help of investors. Turning a profit is challenging on a good day, but when paired with the strain of making up those initial costs, most restaurateurs will never see a profits and losses report that is favorable. Add in the pressure of competing with the big boys of powerful, nation-wide chains that offer food at incredibly low prices to hungry consumers, and it’s no wonder that most restaurants can’t even survive their first year in business. It takes an enormous amount of determination, good planning, and a serious dose of luck for anyone to survive in such a hostile industry.


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The Writing on the Wall, Part Two

Sharing such a personal story was not easy for me, but I’m delighted and deeply touched by the positive response. Emboldened by that experience, I’d like to continue this writerly tangent, now with something drastically different from my typical content: A persuasive research essay. Groupon seems to have reached its breaking point since the time of the original writing, but it still flounders along, so I feel there are a few things remaining that must be said. Tell me, do you still buy Groupons or other similar online discounts? After reading the piece, was I able to persuade you otherwise?

Disastrous Discounts: Paying the Price for Groupon

Social purchasing is more popular than ever, and new websites offering deep discounts on services ranging from massages to kayaking classes are sprouting up every day. Groupon was arguably the trendsetter, beginning the craze and still drawing the greatest crowds; more than 50 million people subscribe to regular alerts and emails about current deals, and over 22 million Groupon deals have been sold as of January 2011. Most commonly though, the bulk of these prepaid vouchers are for purchasing food in restaurants. Poised as both a painless way to try new cuisines and a money-saving option for revisiting old favorites, it’s easy to see the allure of up to 70% off your receipt’s total. The deals may be booming, but what discount-seeking consumers may not know is that by buying into this trendy coupon game, they may actually be damaging the business they love most. Businesses that see flagging sales are more likely to participate in the first place, and it’s common that those deep discounts actually cut further into their bottom lines. Patrons who seek the cheapest options are unlikely to purchase more than their vouchers are good for, and thus each Groupon is accepted at a loss. Groupon may turn a nice profit from the collaboration since it’s not their merchandise or services on the line, but the small restaurants lose, big time. Whether a business fails or succeeds is entirely in the hands on the consumer, which means that this is one case where individuals can make a difference and vote with their dollars.

Anyone who cares enough to invest in a voucher coupon presumably wants their local eateries to stick around, provide more great deals, and of course the food that makes it all worthwhile. Outsourcing the discounts to a middle man is often the big problem, and one that patrons should ultimately avoid. That’s not to say that all coupons are bad for business owners, but seek instead for deals that come straight from the source. Many casual restaurants and coffee shops in particular already have customer loyalty programs which reward repeat businesses. Ask at the counter, and shoppers may be rewarded with a free beverage or appetizer after a certain number of purchases. It’s a nice bonus for being a regular, and a cost that’s more easily subsidized by the establishment in question.  Managers who don’t employ such a tactic may not have thought of it in the first place, so don’t hesitate to suggest starting up such a program to those not participating. Don’t be afraid to speak up; owners interested in pleasing their customers, and especially their loyal fan base, should be open to suggestions.

If the attraction to Groupon shopping is too great to shake altogether, a single discount deal won’t bankrupt a restaurant, but vouchers shouldn’t be like free meal tickets. Purchase Groupons sparingly and don’t be selfish.  Although Groupon and many similar websites allow users to purchase additional copies of the same deal as “gifts,” limit purchases to one of each offer. Although it’s against the terms of service to cash in “gifts” for oneself, it’s sadly a common practice, as an estimated 50% or more of these Groupon deals are in fact illegally cashed in by the original purchaser.  Additionally, be prepared to spend more than the total value of the deal, since that’s the only way that restaurants can break even. Most importantly, do not forget to tip, and tip well. Waiters and waitresses are often the first to suffer from patrons who abuse the system, and seem unwilling to part with a dime beyond their paper contracts. Tips are not included in these vouchers and there’s no excuse for bad tipping on good service.

Who would intentionally create such a short-sighted business plan, which damages its own sources of revenue? No one, and certainly not any savvy investors; Groupon was not designed to ruin restaurants. There’s good reason why it’s still influential and drawing new supporters, and that’s because for some, it does work the way its intended. When smart discounts and price points are set, proprietors can up-sell items and ultimately make a profit, in spite of the vouchers. What’s more, new customers can be attracted to the low prices at first, but become regulars once they finally try the venue. In a perfect world, this is the ideal outcome of a Groupon for both parties, and while it’s not impossible, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Groupon fits perfectly into that concept, promising much more than it can ever hope to deliver. Although the customers are probably never clued into the damage they do, they hold the key to whether their internet-based vouchers make or break a restaurant in dire straits. Avoiding them altogether and simply supporting your local small businesses is the best tactic, because they need every dollar to stay afloat in these difficult times. The customer really does decide the fate of an establishment with both their fork and their money, so put them somewhere you can trust; not a faceless web-based company, but with the talented, hardworking chefs found right around the corner.

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