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For the average food-oriented consumer, the Internet and Web-related technology have been a blessing for several years now. You can log on to read restaurant reviews, research recipes, order food, and even make reservations on countless sites: Food.com, Epicurious.com, Pheast.com, OpenTable.com, iSeatz.com, iDine.com, ireserve.com, Yougottaeat.com, ad nauseam. There's so much information out there you can, in the words of Tony Sindaco, chef-proprietor of Sunfish Grill in Pompano Beach, “go on a wild goose chase and get lost for three hours 'cause [surfing] is so addicting.”
But for most restaurant professionals, the boom has occurred only in the past year or so. Previously chefs used computers (if they knew how to operate them at all) only for writing their recipes and bios on word-processing programs. Now world-renowned chefs and restaurateurs, such as Charlie Trotter from Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and Todd English from the eateries Olives and Figs in Boston, have their own comprehensive Websites. Parent companies of chain restaurants like Darden, which owns Red Lobster, can dish out info about other ventures along with a shrimp promo. Even the little guys, say places like Calypso Pub in Pompano Beach, have registered domain names and menu-based sites on the Net.
Many of these sites are two-way streets. Forbesmagazine reported recently: “Using Net-based feedback mechanisms ranging from e-mail to unmoderated discussion groups, restaurateurs can keep on top of what their core audience wants. And they can use promotions to spur traffic: on the site and under their roof.” Denny's apparently has taken this advice to heart. The restaurant chain is using digital imaging to conduct surveys and collect consumer information. According to Lowell Petrie, senior director of national brands marketing, the company is getting 1000 responses when a note is posted on the Denny's Website (up from the estimated 150 to 200 using traditional mall surveys and direct-mail advertising).
Still, what chefs and restaurateurs are discovering is that the Web can be a solid foundation for far more than marketing. Michael Bennett, executive chef from the Left Bank in Fort Lauderdale, can't imagine working without the Internet. “My sous chef and I [e-mail] letters back and forth every day we don't see each other or whenever I have something to show him,” he notes. “If I have off or vice versa, we communicate by e-mail at night even if we aren't in town.” Bennett also communicates with one of his cooks who took some time off to attend school in Italy. “He wanted to stay a part of the happenings and because he has absolutely no extra money while in school we had to use the Internet because of his free access at school. So what I do is send a picture of a new dish with a short description, and he can keep familiar with everything new and step right back into his job when he comes back in September.” Pretty cool.
Bennett is taking the same short cut that many other professionals soon hope to put into operation: online training. “Late this summer,” according to Restaurants and Industries, “Burger King trainees will construct sandwiches via the Virtual Whopper Board, dragging pickles and dropping ketchup in as many of the 1024 combinations as they like.... The Virtual Whopper Board is part of a new DVD (Digital Versatile Disc)-based training program soon to be rolled out to company and franchise stores worldwide in six languages. And it will keep Burger King at the leading edge of a growing number of restaurants and foodservice operations turning to online and computer-based training.” Indeed a recent survey of 1000 restaurants, conducted by Deloitte & Touche, found that 20 percent anticipate instigating online training methods.
Sound far-fetched? Or maybe just limited to the automatic motions of building a better Whopper? Don't count on it. Many culinary institutions, such as the New England Culinary Institute, currently are constructing interactive videos of food preparation to be launched on the Net. The National Restaurant Association's Educational Foundation is developing ServeSafe, a series of online courses aimed at cooks, supervisors, and managers. One of the most respected chef training grounds, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, launched its online program this past June.
If it all sounds a little sterile, certainly it's no less passive learning than watching Emeril whoop over a pot of chili. And the Internet will soon have one up on television, hope CEO Joel Lloyd Bellenson and president Dexster Smith of DigiScents. The pair has encoded aromas as software and developed what they call iSmell technology. Snortal, their scent-enabled Web portal, is due to launch this fall. So when a computer-animated chef-instructor wants you to tell him when caramelized onions are done just by sniffing them, you'll have a virtual nose for it.
Of course much of this technology lies in the future, and it remains to be seen whether these gastronomically inspired plans come to any kind of fruition. For now chefs and restaurateurs are content with the very real help of what's on the market: Websites such as BigTray.com, which offers foodservice equipment and supplies at low prices; Gofish.com, where you can compare seafood prices worldwide and tell if your local purveyor is competitive or gouging; Virtualrestaurant.com, where you can download an entire business plan for an eatery; Ontherail.com, which posts helpful advice ranging from how to treat intoxicated customers to how to pronounce types of wine.
In fact wine sites are what many restaurateurs, especially those who run small establishments and can't afford to give tastings to the staff, find truly handy. Sunfish Grill chef-proprietor Tony Sindaco uses them “to educate waiters,” he admits. “I make a printout of the properties of a particular wine, then they can go to the table and sell it.” He also keeps up with what the vineyards are releasing so he knows what to order.
All said and done, the most frequently used Web-related service by professionals is the same one consumers are taking advantage of: the online reservation game. OpenTable.com, an especially well-funded national site, seems to be the most popular in Miami right now. Astor Place, for instance, got in almost immediately. “It's a computerized way of booking reservations, tracking customers, and seating the restaurant,” executive chef Johnny Vinczencz enthuses. “It's an actual computer that sits on the hostess stand and is kinda cool.” It's also kinda profitable, given that the computer stores info about customers that owner Karim Masri can access in an instant. And no matter how addicting wild goose chases through linked Websites may prove, in the end revenue will determine just what the Internet will mean to any given professional.