Posted in Dinner, East Bay, Food, Lunch, Peninsula, San Francisco, Shopping, South Bay

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.
Posted in Dinner, Events, Food, Lunch, Shopping, Street Food, Travel

I Heart New York

It seems like ages since BlogHer ’10 came and went, but a lot has happened in that time, hence this extremely late post about my travels to NYC.  Man, I love that town.  Everytime I go I threaten to move there.

There are so many different ways to eat cheap, eat well, and find creative new things to try (this is also true when it comes to shopping and fashion there, too).  Because I was busy working BlogHer ’10 for about five days, I literally saw daylight Wednesday early evening when I arrived, and then Sunday morning once the conference was over.  Crazy, huh?

Fortunately, New York is one town that never sleeps, so I didn’t have a shortage of things to do or places to eat.  I also squeezed in a trip to the Top of the Rock, which I’ve been wanting to go to for a while.  So much cooler than the touristy Empire State Building, in my opinion.

I’m sorry, I was talking about food…   I apologize for the lack of photos since I lost my Blackberry in a cab.  Typical, I know.

The Famous Halal Cart
Had the chicken and white sauce and it’s something you really should try.  The chicken was super moist and the fabulous creamy sauce that is worth the raves.  There are several “imposters” across the street, but the one you want is closest to the Hilton Hotel’s front entrance (Midtown, not Times Square), just across the street (where we were lucky enough to be staying).

Limelight Marketplace
I am so happy I decided to make the trip down to Chelsea to visit this place. It is the cutest “mall”, for lack of a better term. It’s an old church that was then turned into a nightclub, and is now an adorable building that houses the cutest and most eclectic shops, boutiques, and artisan food shops! You can’t get a meal here but you can definitely walk away with snacks and hard-to-find food goodies.

Balthazar Cafe
Now, I didn’t have lunch in the bistro like I’d wanted, but I did make it to the cafe. Had a ham and cheese panini and it was a big “so what”. Next.

The Legendary Katz Deli
I think Katz has seen better days. Many food bloggers have commented that their pastrami and corned beef have been dry on recent visits, and I have to agree. Regardless, it was still a solid pastrami sandwich, just nothing to write home about. But “When Harry Met Sally” is one of my fave movies of all time, so it was nice just to go and check it off my list. The pickles are damn good and the service is quintessential NYC (know what you want and make it quick). It’s probably the most touristy thing I’ll ever do in the Big Apple.

Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream Truck
I was so excited when I happened to see this truck on my way back from Uniqlo in SoHo. (Someone please open a Uniqlo in Northern California! It’s like a Japanese H&M and I miss it!) I’d seen a piece on these guys on some food show and they had some very interesting flavors like Currents and Cream (which they were out of!), and Ginger. I decided to share the Cane Sugar special with my friend Monique. It was creamy, bordering on a gelato texture, but not as elastic and smooth. The ingredients were obviously quality (they apparently only use the finest milk, eggs, and cane sugar, no additives), and it had a lovely butterscotch aftertaste which was delightful. But it was overpriced, in my opinion. Again, something to cross off the list. No regrets.

After all those good eats, it was ironic that my last meal in town was at Panda Express at JFK. I guess not every meal in NYC can be a winner :).

Posted in Food, San Francisco, Shopping, Street Food, Travel

More Ferry Building Fare

Yes, yes, another trip to the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace.  I know many of you may recall my endless affection for this foodie destination, but I can’t help it.  I don’t get to go as often as I like, but when I do, I visit both my faves as well as manage to find new items to swoon over.

So on this trip, I was determined to try a DIFFERENT porchetta sandwich.  One that WASN’T Roli Roti’s (gasp)!  I’ve heard much chatter about the pork sammie at Il Cane Rosso, and that it was just as good (which I find impossible).

First, yes it is VERY good.  The crunchy fresh French bread and the pickled cabbage gave a wonderful flavor and texture contrast to the moist, well-seasoned, obviously fresh and quality pork.  It seemed to have been cooked for hours with a variety of herbs that I don’t even have in my pantry.  Delicious, indeed.  BUT, it’s still second place to Roli Roti’s.

Second, the family and I headed to Miette to give their macaroons a shot.  I’ve tried many macaroons here and there around the Bay Area, and none have impressed me much, especially since I have a ridiculous standard to live up to having had them in Paris.

To my surprise, they weren’t bad at all!  Many may disagree, but for me, it came down to the texture of the cookie, itself.  Yes, I love the flavor infusions of the macaroons I had in Paris, but the chewy center of the two cookies and the crisp outer shell are what always impressed me most.  Miette delivered on this.  And it had that light yet distinct almond flavor.  I agree with many that the fillings are a bit too sweet and lack any delicate essence, but the texture and flavor of the cookie, itself, made it a winner for me.  (By the way, the grapefruit was not a good choice, but I’d go for the pistachio again in a heartbeat.)

And no trip to the Ferry Building would be complete without a trip to Delica.  Their Japanese deli fare is so delicious and prepared so well.  The ingredients are so damn fresh and tasty.  I always get the potato croquette (still the best one I’ve ever had) and this time I got the fried shrimp cake.  Oh…my…gawd.  I’ve always had great affection for all things fried, and these two snacks certainly fit the bill.  Just order them if you ever go.  You won’t be sorry.

So I add more items to my “must haves” list for next time.  This list, by the way, is getting too big.

Posted in Food, San Francisco, Shopping

English Sweet Treats

IMG_3923There’s something about modern candy shops that sends even the most jaded adult into a child-like state. They’re complete with retro decor, walls lined with jars of colorful treats, and pastel colored packaging.

I’ve admitted before that I’m not a huge sugar fiend, nor am I the kind of person who dreams of chocolate. But the candies and candy bars I DO enjoy, I enjoy greatly. They’ll send me into a nostalgic state complete with memories of  my youth (Fruit Stripe gum, Charms hard candies, bubble gum “cigarettes,” Charleston Chews and Jolly Rancher Stix), or of when I was living in Toronto or Hong Kong.

fionas-logoBecause both places have connections to Queen Elizabeth, common English candies and chocolate bars were easy to find at your nearest supermarket. That’s why I found Fiona’s Sweetshoppe just off Union Square in San Francisco to be delightful. It’s a tiny little shop opened by a British native who missed her favorite English sweet treats.

IMG_3925 They were stocked with sweets I haven’t seen in a while, like the full line of Cadbury chocolate products, Flake, Bounty, Aero, Smarties, Malteasers (both milk and white chocolate), the original Mars bars (which they don’t sell in America anymore), Rowntree Fruit Gums and Pastilles, and Fruittella chews. They also carry bulk candies that aren’t made in-house but shipped in from England.

Now, the English may not be known for their culinary genius, but they make some damn fine candy.

And though I was disappointed to see they didn’t carry my fave Coffee Crisp candy bars, I walked out with my pink bag full of sweet treats feeling like a kid in a…well, you know…

Fiona’s Sweetshoppe214 Sutter St., SF – www.fionassweetshoppe.com

Posted in Food, San Francisco, Shopping

A Top Chef Master’s Low End Venture

Image courtesy of http://www.rickbayless.com

I’m excited for the upcoming season of Top Chef Masters. There’s no word on who will be competing yet, but I had a blast rooting for Hubert Keller and Rick Bayless last time around.

Trips to Keller’s Burger Bar and Fleur de Lys will have to wait (though they’re on my list of restaurants to try), but Rick Bayless doesn’t have much of a presence around these parts.

He does, however, have a gourmet takeout joint in the cellar of Macy’s Union Square in SF called Frontera Fresco. His obsession with Mexican food and culture, along with his attention to detail told me that the place couldn’t be THAT bad. The man has a reputation to uphold. So my hubby and I gave it a try after a day of post-holiday retail returns.

We went for the Chipotle Chicken and Roasted Vegetable Salad with goat cheese, shredded chicken, and roasted zucchini and peppers. We also had the Pulled Pork Tacos and a Pulled Pork Torta, grilled panini style. (Can you tell pork is the new black around culinary circles? Not that I’m complaining.)

Everything was delicious. The flavors were surprisingly fresh for a takeout place. This stuff was better than most salads or sandwiches you’d get at a sitdown cafe. The pork was stewed and flavored nicely. It wasn’t bland or dry or too greasy either. It actually tasted like it had been cooked for a long time with a lot of care. Pretty impressive for this type of place.

And my husband LOVED his salad. There were no brown lettuce leaves or wilted arugula here. Every piece was fresh, crisp, and bright. The chicken and roasted zucchini gave great flavor and texture contrast to the crisp romaine.

The best part is that this place doesn’t skimp on portions or overcharge just because a celebrity chef’s name is attached to it. Now, of course, it’s not one of his famous restaurants in Chicago, but you could DEFINITELY do worse if you’re looking for a quick, easy, affordable takeout option.

Bayless’ attention to detail and respect for Mexican food really comes through. And fortunately, his reputation has not been compromised.

Frontera Fresco on Urbanspoon

Posted in Shopping

Products I Discovered in 2008

As we bid adieu to another year, I wanted to share with you some of the little things I discovered over the past year that made my life a little better.  Many of them aren’t new, but I discovered them in 2008.  Frivolous information, I know, but fun nonetheless.  🙂

Earthscience Herbal Tonic Mist – This oil-free moisturizer and toning spray has completely changed my skin.  Just spritz it on after you wash your face and before you moisturize.  It’ll firm and soften your face.  I couldn’t believe just one little spray could make my skin feel so soft all day.  And the ingredients are all natural!

Avalon Organics Lavender Facial Cleansing Gel & Facial Serum – I’ve got combination skin and it’s never happy.  It’s either too dry or too oily.  This stuff is so great because it cleans, it’s all natural, and doesn’t make my face dry.  You’d think that were an easy task, but after years of trying to find a decent cleanser, it’s not.

And my face hates lotions and creams.  Either they don’t moisturize enough or make me breakout.  So I depend on serums and this one is again, all natural, and does the job by making my sensitive skin less red and blotchy.  It totally calms my skin down, moisturizes, and doesn’t make me breakout at all.  I’m a happy camper with this stuff.  🙂

Eucerin Calming Body Wash & Calming Creme – Sensitive skin has been a theme for me this year, unfortunately.  So it’s not enough for me just to find some heavier lotion for my dry skin.  Both these products are great because they’re gentle, affordable, and totally do the job.  And I’ve tried too many of them to mention.

Sue Devitt Whipped Seaweed Foundation – I hate wearing foundation, and again, couldn’t find anything that made my skin look natural and not cakey, without blocking my pores and suffocating my skin.  This stuff has seaweed extracts and other incredible ingredients that actual make your face look and feel better than before.  I’ll never go back to any of the other stuff I’ve tried, again.

Kiehl’s Super Thick Volumizer – Spray this stuff on your roots, blowdry like you would normally, and voila!  And it even has a little bit of hold in it if you want something lighter than a hairspray.  Again, so simple and so great.

Clinique Moisture Surge Refreshing Eye Mask – Got 10 minutes?  Eyes looking dry and tired?  I use this when I’ve been too lazy to use eye cream in a few days or if the skin around my eyes is looking dehydrated.  This stuff is easy to use and it works.

Try anything over the last year that you can’t live without?  Let me know and leave me a comment.  Happy New Year!

Posted in San Francisco, Shopping

Did you know about this? I didn’t know about this!

One of my favorite retail stores is Anthropologie.

Yes, their merchandise is WAY overpriced.

Yes, the quality of some of their flimsy clothes is questionable (especially given the prices). But who can resist those richly embellished tops, brightly colored jackets, or flowery summer skirts? And if you check out the sale rack in the back of every store, you may be able find a few dare-I-say “affordable” gems.

Anyways, I was surfing some blogs over the weekend and came across this wonderfully juicy tidbit of info for us bargain shopping chicks with champagne tastes (and less of the wallet to match).

Anthropologie notoriously never offers free shipping offers, coupon codes or promotions for shopping their website. But they now offer the “anthro card” for frequent shoppers. It’s a bit like a supermarket club card where they can track your shopping habits in their store for their marketing purposes (fortunately they DON’T sell your information to any third parties, so don’t worry). But for you the card holder, you get some nifty perks!

Once you sign up for one online or in-store, they’ll send you a card in the mail (eventually). Here’s what you get:

  • Free shipping with all online orders (you have to link up your email to your card’s account online first)
  • Receipt-free returns on all in-store purchase for the full purchase price
  • First look at all of the newest merchandise so you can purchase it before it hits the stores or online.

I just received my card and it even came with a cute little drawstring bag.

My wallet is already cringing…

Anthropologie – Various locations nationwide

Posted in Shopping, Travel

A Different Bookstore Experience

 Courtesy of www.bookbuyers.com

My hubby and I love to visit bookstores.  We can browse, read, and wander for hours.  If you’re on the Peninsula, your options are mostly limited to either Barnes & Noble, Borders or the occasional Books Inc.  But when we’re in the mood to drive just a little further south, we go to my favorite bookstore, BookBuyers on Castro St. in Mountain View.

It’s a great street to get a good meal (there are so many great Asian restaurants up and down Castro).  And after your meal, you can walk right on over to BookBuyers.

There are lots of reasons to love this place.  First, there’s no better place to buy a calendar anytime of year.  The calendars are ALWAYS 50% off the retail price and you won’t find a bigger selection anywhere.  They’ve got calendars of every kind, size, theme and design you could ever want or think of.

Second, it’s a great spot to sell your used software, books, CDs, magazines, and movies.  They’ll buy them from you, which explains their great selection of merchandise…

And that’s my favorite thing about this place.  There are aisles and aisles and aisles of all kinds of books that are much less than at a regular bookstore because most are used.  There are books, magazines, and CDs that are out of print and you can find a lot of great literary treasures.  I love to shop for travel books and cookbooks here because many are barely used and in great condition.  The selection is remarkable and so are the prices.

I tend to spend more time here than at a conventional bookstore.  It’s like a vast well organized treasure hunt, and you’re bound to find more than a few gems. 

BookBuyers – 317 Castro Street, Mountain View – 650.968.7323

Posted in Shopping

Crate & Barrel CAN Be Affordable!

outletoohlahlah062007.jpg

Have I really never written about this place?

I guess I’ve kept this place on my regular repatoire of favorite bargain spots for so long that I forgot to mention it. But it’s REALLY worth visiting.

We’re lucky enough in the Bay Area to have one of the few Crate and Barrel Outlet stores in the country. It’s located on the quaint shopping area of Fourth Street in Berkeley, which means parking can be a challenge on the weekends. But you could easily spend an afternoon in the neighborhood. But I digress…

The Crate and Barrel Outlet takes discontinued, seasonal, and sample merchandise and sells it at up to 85% off their original prices. I just got four picture frames, a wine decanter and four matching wine glasses, a large glass centerpiece bowl, and two juice glasses on one visit and spent only 80 bucks. How’s that for a deal on Crate and Barrel merchandise?

They also have a huge selection of furniture, bedding, dishes, table linens, home decor and accessories, kitchenware, glasses, gifts, basically anything you can think of at a regular Crate and Barrel. Each time you go the merchandise will be different so if you see something, you should grab it. And you don’t need a sale since everything’s already marked down so much (some more than others, of course).

There are no drawbacks to paying this place a visit every once in a while. Some times will be better than others, but it’ll always be worth a visit, if only to gawk at the prices.

Crate and Barrel Outlet 1785 Fourth Street, Berkeley – 510.528.5500

Posted in Shopping

So we were in the market for a sofa…

sofa.jpg

The West Point sofa from the Kathy Ireland for Omni Furniture collection (We didn’t order white, of course…)

My husband and I just bought a lovely dark brown leather couch after having my horrible Jennifer Convertables sofa for 10 years.  10 years!  Way too long.  And it was never comfortable.  So we decided to make our first major grown up furniture purchase and pay some good money for a long-term, quality leather couch. 

After visiting every furniture chain and local store we could think of, my husband recommended a random store called the Sofa Outlet along El Camino in San Mateo.  He saw it on the way to a Thai restaurant we were headed to.  As usual, I didn’t take him seriously.

It wasn’t until some local show on TV mentioned it as a good place to shop for almost any style couch you can think of, at 20-30% off retail.  I was so there!  (Sorry, Honey.)

After multiple visits leafing through the tons and tons of catalogs, and then realizing the style we liked most wouldn’t fit through the narrow hallway of our home (we wanted the Pottery Barn “Manhattan” look-alike couch), we decided on an expresso brown couch from Omnia Furniture.  We could totally choose the color and grade of leathers since it would be custom made!

We ordered a standard three seater sofa, two large oversized chairs (like the ones the comfy ones they have in major bookstores for reading) and a large ottoman.  It was all high grade, pre-treated leather, and the tab including tax and a minimal delivery charge only because they had to go up to the second floor of our home (usually it’s free!), and it was $6000.  That may sound like a lot, but they’re investment pieces, and good leather sofa sets can cost WAY more than that.  We easily saw some that were in the five figures!

So we finally got them this week, and I can’t tell you how happy we are.  They are so comfy, great quality, and best of all the staff at the store AND the delivery staff were friendly, careful, and accomodating.  Great service, great price, great quality…a win-win for sure.

Sofa OutletEl Camino Real, San Mateo