The business and culture of our digital lives,
from the L.A. Times

Category: Food and Drink

Yelp wins dismissal of class-action lawsuits


Yelp won a request Wednesday to dismiss several lawsuits against the popular ratings website. The suits alleged that San Francisco-based Yelp rewards or penalizes businesses based on whether they advertised with the company.

In a blog post after the decision, Chief Executive Jeremy Stoppelman said "nothing could be further from the truth."

"As we've discussed here many times, we use an automated algorithm to filter our content to help us showcase the most reliable reviews we can," he said. "This makes Yelp a little bit different than other review sites, which can be strange and unsettling to some businesses."

Still, he conceded that protecting content integrity is a "difficult task" and "sometimes legitimate content can get caught." The lawsuits have also led to more transparency from the company, which instituted changes such as allowing users to see filtered reviews that were previously hidden.

Yelp has become a prominent landing site for people interested in getting consumer reviews on restaurants, clubs, hotels and other businesses. The 7-year-old company has faced criticism in the past from small-business owners who accused the company of burying positive reviews and promoting negative ones if they didn't advertise on the website; some said the company would pressure them to advertise in exchange for removal of negative reviews.


Yelp should review its disclosure efforts

Yelp makes two major changes in the way reviews are posted

Google gobbles up Zagat guide

-- Andrea Chang

Photo: Yelp says its members have written more than 22 million local reviews. Credit: Yelp

Pizza in 90 seconds -- from a vending machine

Need a pizza, stat? A new vending machine in testing stages can bake a white, cheese or pepperoni pie in 90 seconds.

With a formula that makes fast food sound slow, the mechanical pizza producer can dispense a pie -– complete with vented box, disposable pizza cutter, napkin and spices -- in 3.5 minutes from order to pick-up.

Developed by immigrant-turned-jeweler Puzant Katchadourian, the five Pizzametry machines in market testing each hold enough ingredients for 150 pizzas, according to the New York Daily News.

The machine allows customers to watch through a window as it presses a dough ball into an 8-inch round, squeezes out pizza sauce from a nozzle and then distributes cheese and sauce. Or buyers can stare at an attached flat-screen television.

As some traditional quick service chains such as Domino’s go gourmet with Artisan Pizzas, other forms of fast food are becoming increasingly automated, with some laboratories now able to produce fine cuisine using printers.


Domino's launches a line of artisan pizzas

Cornell lab prints food, says digital cuisine could change restaurants

-- Tiffany Hsu

Video: A prototype from

Google buys Zagat, a pioneer in restaurant ratings

Zagat rates Google, its new owner

Google Inc. has purchased Zagat, a publisher of widely used ratings of restaurants and other businesses.

"With Zagat, we gain a world-class team that has more experience in consumer based-surveys, recommendations and reviews than anyone else in the industry," said Marissa Mayer, a Google vice president responsible for the tech giant's efforts in local, maps and location services, in a blog post.

"Moving forward, Zagat will be a cornerstone of our local offering -- delighting people with their impressive array of reviews, ratings and insights, while enabling people everywhere to find extraordinary (and ordinary) experiences around the corner and around the world."

The move will help Google better rival competitors like Yelp, Yahoo and Bing in local search (finding a restaurant, store or other type of business nearby or when visiting another city).

Zagat has been in the local rankings biz for 32 years, long before Google, Yahoo or Yelp, and "their surveys may be one of the earliest forms of UGC (user-generated content) -- gathering restaurant recommendations from friends, computing and distributing ratings before the Internet as we know it today even existed," Mayer said. "Their iconic pocket-sized guides with paragraphs summarizing and 'snippeting' sentiment were 'mobile' before 'mobile' involved electronics."

Founded by husband and wife Tim and Nina Zagat, the company has grown to become a trusted brand with "Zagat rated" stickers popping up on many restaurant windows and paperback Zagat Guides regularly becoming hot sellers in many major cities.

"After spending time with Google senior management discussing our mutual goals, we know they share our belief in user-generated content and our commitment to accuracy and fairness in providing users with the information needed to make smart decisions about where to eat, shop and travel," Tim and Nina Zagat said in a statement.

"We believe this union is the right next step for our employees, our users and for our business, all of which will benefit from the additional resources and reach that Google provides."

The Zagats said would become Google employees while remaining co-chairs of the Zagat business.

The companies didn't disclose a deal price. In 2008, Zagat's founders unsuccessfully sought to sell company for $200 million. In 2009, Google tried but failed to buy Yelp.


Google shuts down Aardvark and 9 other products

Google Places adds Hotpot to iPhone app to take on Yelp

Google agrees to $500-million settlement over online drug ads

-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Image: A screen shot of's home page, showing an ostensible review of Google, after the announcement of Google's purchase of Zagat. Credit:

Jonathan Stark wants you to use his Starbucks card

Stark There is such a thing as a free cup of coffee.

Just ask Jonathan Stark, a mobile applications consultant from Providence, R.I., who started conducting an experiment in social sharing in July. That's when he began letting people download his Starbucks card to their smartphones to buy coffee on him.


Stark, 42, calls it "broadcasting money." He asked only that people keep purchases to $3 or less and that they tweet about his project. And, if they wanted to pay it forward, to add some money to the card. His Twitter account posts the card's balance.

Stark was researching mobile payments for a Boston start-up when he hit on an idea: He says he took a screen shot of the bar code in the Starbucks app on his iPhone. He emailed the screen shot to himself. Then he could open that email on any of his phones so the Starbucks barista could scan it. Then he made the screen shot available to the world. People who didn't have smartphones printed out the screen shot. One person even had the barista scan his laptop.

In the beginning, he had fewer than 100 people following him on Twitter, so the card balance always remained fairly low. But over the weekend, Stark's experiment was discovered and the lattes began flowing.

Stark estimates that the Starbucks card has gone through about $4,400, most of it in the last two days. That's $4,000 in anonymous donations, he said.

"95% of people are super cool and like the idea. The last I checked, about an hour ago, the number of people getting drinks versus people contributing money was 2 to 1," Stark said. 

He has noticed an interesting dynamic: "Every time the balance gets really high, it brings out the worst in people: Someone goes down to Starbucks and makes a huge purchase. I don't know if they are buying coffee beans or mugs, or transferring money to their own card or what. But as long as the balance stays low, say $20 to $30, it seems like it manages itself. I haven't put any money on it in a while. All the money going through the card right now is the kindness of strangers."

What has he learned? Mobile payments are the wave of the future: They are easy and convenient, and he predicts consumers will put up very little resistance to switching from credit cards -- as long as banks and merchants sort out the fees and who's responsible for fraud and the like, he said.

And, although he has gotten negative reactions from people who say he should donate money to a good cause rather than give away coffee to people with smartphones, he sees his experiment as setting an example of "humans being good."

"It's literally giving people hope," Stark said. "Ultimately the goal is for more people to do this kind of thing. I admit it seems a little frivolous to give away coffee to people with iPhones. But imagine if you had a CVS card and you could give someone $10 for their Alzheimer's medication. The concept of frictionless social giving is very attractive. And this is just the beginning of that."


Google planning mobile payment test in San Francisco, New York 

Mobile payments company Square lands $100-million investment

Jack Dorsey is one of the busiest guys in tech

-- Jessica Guynn

Photo: Jonathan Stark. Credit: Erica Smith (@esmith43 on Twitter)

Munch On Me, a deals site for restaurants, expands to West L.A.


Munch On Me, a San Francisco-based start-up, is hoping to be the first thing you think of when that ever-recurring question arises: "What do I want to eat?"

The company's website, of course, is a foodie's take on the hot streak of deal-offering sites that have popped up in recent years (sort of like Groupon, LivingSocial and Woot!). But, unlike other deals sites, Munch On Me isn't waiting for others to take part in a bargain before one can nab a discount out in the real world.

Munch On Me offers specific food items -- just individual items, not entire meals -- for a week, at  discounts that vary by restaurant. Usually, each week, three or four items are up for grabs and as soon as users buy an item, they can redeem their discount.

The start-up, coming out of the Mountain View, Calif., tech incubator Y Combinator, launched this week in West Los Angeles and is offering three discounted items -- a "specialty donut" at Stan's Doughnuts, a $5 wine tasting card at the Pourtal Wine tasting bar and a Stand Dog (hot dog) at The Stand.

And to kick things off for Munch On Me, the first three discounts are sizable: 100% off. Free. Gratis.

Free is exactly the kind of deal co-founder and CEO Jason Wang would have loved to have been offered a bit more while in college at UC Berkeley, where met the company's other three co-founders: Richard Din, Andy Zhang and Tony Li.

"In college, I ate out just about every meal and I had to think about what am I going to eat for every meal, every day," Wang said. "When I got out of college, I got a job at Google and they feed you breakfast, lunch and dinner and it made me realize I didn't have to think about that anymore. And that made me realize how helpful something like Munch On Me could have been to me in college and for everyone else who doesn't work at a company that feeds you."

After about nine months at Google as a risk analyst, Wang and his friend Din, who was working as a  software engineer at Electronic Arts, broke out on their own and hired Zhang to lead Web development and Li to handle sales.

The site launched appropriately in Berkely and the East Bay area as its first market in February and is currently offering weekly deals there and in San Francisco, as well as in San Jose and the South Bay.

"So far, the response has been really good," Wang said. "We've had a lot of restaurants wanting to return and do more deals with us and often, when people get a deal from us, they'll buy something else at the merchant, too, because our deals aren't full meals. We usually do an appetizer, a drink, a meal, a dessert, all at different places."

After some success in the site's first three markets, rolling out to West Los Angeles was a no brainer, he said.

"West L.A. is dense, and the food is really good, and our users have been asking for us to add West L.A. for a while now," Wang said.

The company is hoping to launch into Seattle sometime in August and sometime after that in Orange County, Chicago, New York and San Diego. The planned expansion will call for more new hires; part-timers who can meet with restaurant owners, shoot photos of food and write up copy on all the edibles that are featured, he said.

The team is also working on building out a mobile website, as well as apps for Apple's iOS and Google's Android, Wang said.

"Our market is really the whole world, because everybody eats," he said. "We're just getting started, but we want to be the go-to service when you ask yourself everyday 'what am I going to eat today.' People turn to Facebook for social networking, LinkedIn for professional networking, Amazon to buy things, Craigslist to sell things -- we want to be that for food."


Gigwalk pays iPhone users to do odd jobs

Genwi launches do-it-yourself iPad app publishing tools

Grubwithus looks to take social networking from the Web to the dinner table

-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Image: A screen shot of Munch On Me's first meal deals in West Los Angeles. Credit: Munch On Me

Grubwithus looks to take social networking from the Web to the dinner table


Grubwithus is a start-up looking to bring social networking from the Web to the dinner table.

Already active in Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., the social dining website launched in Los Angeles on Thursday night with a meal at Shin Hollywood, a Korean BBQ restaurant.

The site offers users a chance to eat meals at trendy restaurants in groups of about six to 12 people, depending on the size of the restaurant. To sign up for a meal, a user has to set up an account with Grubwithus or sign in using Facebook or Twitter.

Next meal up for Grubwithus in Los Angeles is Lala's Argentine on Monday.

Usually those attending a dinner don't know one another, and that's the point, said Daishin Sugano, who founded Grubwithus with his college buddy, Eddy Lu.

The reason Sugano and Lu started the site, which first launched last August in Chicago at the URL, was precisely to meet people they didn't know.

"We were living in Chicago and we didn't really know anyone there, and we went to bars and lounges and did the normal thing to make friends, and it was really hard to meet people," Sugano said. "And one of the social settings where we, and we think most people, feel comfortable in is over dinner -- it's one of the oldest traditions out there. But we really sort of started Grubwithus for ourselves first."

And so far the idea seems to be catching on, he said.

After launching in Chicago, where Sugano and Lu own a Beard Papa's cream puff store, Grubwithus was taken in by Y Combinator, a San Francisco firm that funds start-ups at their earliest "seed" stage.

The duo, who met at UC Berkeley, launched their social dining site in the Bay Area in January and followed with New York in March and D.C. in April.

Now up and running in Los Angeles, the young site may be in for its biggest challenge yet, Sugano said.

"Los Angeles to me is the most exciting because we're coming home; both Eddy and I grew up in the L.A. area," he said. "At the same time, L.A. is really different type of city. Everyone has a car here, for one thing. In the other cities we've launched in, it's a lot easier to rely on public transportation to get around because things are a lot less spread out. But we're L.A. guys, we know the city and we think we'll catch on here too."

Sugano grew up in Downey and Lu was raised in Pasadena. After graduating in 2003, the two were roommates in West Los Angeles while working corporate jobs neither was particularly passionate about.

"We came home every day from work and we'd just talk about and outline ideas for how we could get out of the corporate life. And we eventually came up with cream puffs in Chicago, and that eventually led us to start Grubwithus," Sugano said. "And now we're back in L.A."

The plan going forward is to move back to Los Angeles and maybe even get an actual office.

"Or we may get a house and work out of that; we're not sure yet," Sugano said. "We've been working out of apartments and Starbucks, but it's hard to work without your own space and it might soon be time to change that."

Funding from Y Combinator and a few early investors has allowed Grubwithus to grow to a team of seven, with two other engineers, two "city developers" who scout out restaurants and establish relationships with eateries, and one person to oversee finances, he said.

The company takes in revenue by way of a fee for each person who purchases a meal to a dinner organized by the site, which is averaging about one meal in each city on weekdays, Sugano said.

"We find the restaurants and set everything up with them," he said. "We take care of bill splitting, what you're going to order, all that. So the food just comes out and you can focus on socializing and meeting people."

Grubwithus is looking to launch in Boston next month and then sometime shortly thereafter in Seattle, he said.

More funding is being raised to help bankroll expansion plans, but Sugano said he wasn't ready yet to talk about that end.

"I kept saying I haven't made money in like six years, and everyone laughs, but it's a serious thing," Sugano said. "That's what it takes sometimes. We saved money from our corporate jobs to open up our cream puff store in Chicago, and we started Grubwithus the same way. And it seems to be really sticking, and that's what it takes. We're just getting started."


Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker team for Yo, a new video chat project

Coloft: a shared work space in Santa Monica and a real-life social network

From DocVerse to Cloud Connect: Shan Sinha reflects on year one at Google

-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Photo: A screenshot of a Grubwithus dinner in Los Angeles. Credit: Grubwithus

Foodily -- a social network and recipe search engine for foodies -- launches

The days of clipping recipes from magazines are in the past -- starting Wednesday, foodies can access the expansive online cookbook known as Foodily.

Short for "Food I Love You," the service acts as a recipe and ingredient search engine for connoisseurs of all kinds of grub -– comfort foods, epicurean delicacies and exotic dishes alike.

Launched by two Yahoo! alums, Andrea Cutright and Hillary Mickell, Foodily has already picked up a $5-million investment from Index Ventures.

Users can look up millions of recipes from websites such as the Food Network and Epicurious, even excluding certain ingredients, and compare the results side-by-side, like in a book.

But what sets Foodily apart from other sites such as or Yelp is the heavy social-network aspect. Facebook users can use Foodily to like certain recipes and check out friends' favorite dishes. It's also a one-stop dinner-planning shop -– users can plan a menu and invite friends.

"This is the way we really make decisions about what we eat -- with the advice and ideas of those in our social network," Cutright wrote on the Foodily blog.

Check out the intro video below.


Craving wings and beer? There are apps just for that

Why the Internet loves bacon*

-- Tiffany Hsu [follow]

Microsoft's Bing adds new mobile app, map, social-media and travel features


Microsoft unveiled a slew of new mobile, local, travel and social-media features for Bing in an effort to make the search engine more competitive with search-industry leader Google.

One new feature aimed at social media fans is the option to rank search results based on what a Bing user's friends have "liked" on Facebook.

Microsoft also updated its Bing mobile apps -- for smart phones such as the iPhone, Android and Windows Phone 7 handsets -- to enable users to make reservations using the popular OpenTable service or order takeout using Grubhub, all from within the app.

Once checked in to a restaurant using OpenTable, a Bing app user can then "check in" at the restaurant using social-media location services such as Foursquare and Facebook Places.

Another new location-based feature for the Bing apps are reminders that users can set to pop up on their smart phones when Bing recognizes that its near a specified business or place.

Bing apps also are gaining Microsoft's Streetside feature, which is similar to Google Maps' Street View. Streetside feeds panoramic photo views of city streets to the app's maps function.

Real-time public transportation information has also been added to the Bing apps. The travel info will tell users if a bus or train is running early, on time or delayed, and the app can offer predictions for arrival times.

For now, transit routes for 11 metropolitan areas are live including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Jersey, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Vancouver. More cities will be added in the future.

One feature that isn't available yet, but that Microsoft said it's working on, is in-Bing-app ticket-buying for sports games and other events using a service called FanSnap.


Microsoft may launch tablets to rival the iPad at CES

Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 to let users list sites they do and don't want tracking them

-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Images: Screen shots of new Bing app restaurant check-in features on an Apple iPhone. Credit: Microsoft

McDonald's databases hacked, customer data stolen


McDonald's databases were recently hacked into and personal customer information was stolen, the fast-food giant said in a statement.

"Recently McDonald's was informed by one of its partners that limited customer information collected in connection with our promotions or websites was improperly accessed by a third party," McDonald's said. "Limited customer information such as name, address, phone number, birth date and gender was included in the information that was accessed."

Kgf2gxncThe data that the hackers were able to get was compiled from consumers who signed up to receive e-mails from McDonald's on the websites,,,,,, and, the statement said.

The data did not include credit card information or other financial or personal info, the company said.

McDonald's didn't offer a date as to when the cyber attack took place and officials for the chain were unavailable Monday afternoon.

The company said in its statement that a business partner, Arc Worldwide, was developing a list of its customers' e-mail addresses to send them promotional e-mails.

Arc, whose officials were also unreachable Monday afternoon, hired an e-mail service provider to supervise and manage the e-mail database, McDonald's said.

"That e-mail service provider has advised that its computer systems recently were accessed by an unauthorized third party, and that information, including information that customers provided to McDonald's, was accessed by that unauthorized third party," the burger chain said. "Law enforcement officials have been notified and are investigating this incident."

In its statement, McDonald's sent out a warning to its customers as well.

"In the event that you are contacted by someone claiming to be from McDonald's asking for personal or financial information, do not respond and instead immediately contact us ... so we can contact the authorities," the company said.

McDonald's is asking customers who think their information may have been stolen in the Web attack to report any suspicious contact to a toll-free number: (800) 244-6227.


Gawker websites, Twitter hacked and spammed by 'Gnosis'

Hackers claim to have shut down Visa website in defense of WikiLeaks

-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Image (top): A screen shot of, a McDonald's website that compiled some customer information that was recently hacked and stolen. Photo (bottom): A McDonald's in Fullerton, Calif. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times

Six excuses to touch and kiss your iPhone on Valentine's Day

Upon spelunking around for Valentine's apps in Apple's now-massive App Store, I was amazed to find that there are at least dozens of Valentine's-related applications. I probably shouldn't have been surprised, given that close to 150,000 apps are available. That means apps are just getting more and more specific and the average usefulness level is very likely dropping.

The idea of 150,000 apps is hard to conceive of for us children of the software-in-box era, when the shelves of CompUSA or Software Etc. probably held no more than a couple hundred titles at once. And even most of  those were barely worth a second look.

That said, not everything in this world needs to be useful -- and for the price of four rides on the mechanical horse outside the supermarket, you can amuse yourself for minutes with a variety of odd and silly applications centered on just about any theme or topic. Why not?

I only ask that you wipe your phone clean after testing out these apps. It's a family holiday.

Now, then ...

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Andrea Chang
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