Sunday, March 08, 2009

Wolfsong Enterprises is Re-Branding!

For a litany of reasons too numerous (or boring) to go into, Wolfsong Enterprises is re-branding itself as Wolfsong Diner. The new link for my blog is:

You will still get all the insightful commentary, witty observations, delicious recipes, and humble self assessment that you have come to know and love from Wolfsong Enterprises. However, the new blog surpasses the former in the following ways:
  1. Wolfsong Diner has a way cooler logo.
  2. Wolfsong Diner has a way cooler name.
  3. Wolfsong Diner has an organizing theme that pulls a disparate group of articles into a cogent whole. Or at least tries to.
Wolfsong Enterprises will, of course remain existent for many weeks, but all new content will be placed on the new site.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

How Restaurants Can Ride Out the Economic Storm

A couple of weeks ago, I took my family out to one of our favorite Indian restaurants for dinner. The waitress, who recognized us immediately, commented on our long absence from her establishment. We explained (somewhat sheepishly, I might add) that we had not been going out for dinner anywhere these past few months. “I understand,” she said. “Very few people do. It’s been hard for us.”

The economic downturn has been especially hard on the restaurant industry. CNBC reported on declining restaurant attendance last December. According to The NPD Group, a leading market research company, the opening of new restaurants was balanced out by the closings, resulting in no growth in total restaurant units in 2008. In 2009, restaurant traffic is predicted to fall by at least 1%, and the casual dining segment could have its worst year in decades.

Dick Williams, culinary advisor and owner of Denver’s high end Buckhorn Exchange Steakhouse, reported that menu prices increased 4.3% in 2008. With food costs expected to increase by 7-9%, either menu prices will rise in 2009, or portion sizes will shrink.

So, what is a restaurateur to do? The answer is obvious. Start offering cooking classes.

Interestingly, cooking classes are doing quite well in this economy precisely because so many people are no longer going to restaurants. Sherry Zylka, associate dean of continuing education and workforce development at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, MI, reported a 20% increase in the number of men taking classes, suggesting that interest in cooking cuts across gender lines.

By offering cooking demonstrations and classes, restaurants can maintain their customer loyalty while continuing to make some money. By offering classes at $15-$25 per class, the restaurant can greatly undercut Williams-Sonoma’s costs for cooking demonstrations. Furthermore, the restaurant does not need to create a new brand identity or reputation for its cooking demonstrations. The quality of its product is known to all of its customers.

Ethnic restaurants in particular could succeed with cooking demonstrations simply because fewer Americans know how to make exotic dishes. A cooking class on making paneer pakora (fried, battered cheese) is much more exciting than a cooking class on, oh, I don't know...breaded cheese sticks.

Unfortunately, I predict that few restaurants will try out this idea simply because of the fear that the classes will cannibalize or neutralize their existing business. While this is certainly a possibility, I personally think that the benefits gained in building customer loyalty outweigh any lost revenue. When times are tough, customers will flock to the restaurants to learn how to make their favorite dishes at home. And when times get better, customers will come back. Yes, even if customers know the "secrets" of cooking, they will still go out to eat at restaurants for two important reasons: 1) most people don’t want to cook if they don't have to, and 2) they know that the restaurant can do it better.

So, there it is: my secret for riding out the economic storm. It is free advice for any restaurateurs who wants to take it. I won’t charge you a penny for the idea.

However, if you want to give me a discounted rate on your palak paneer demonstration, I won’t say no.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Zev Winicur is Now Your Friend

Well, I finally broke down and did it. After years of avoiding the inevitable, I swallowed my pride, shredded my dignity, sold my soul, and joined the masses.

Yes, last week I set up a Facebook page.

I don't have anything against social networking sites (SNSs). In fact, I've allowed my LinkedIn network to expand slowly and organically over the years. Furthermore, I am an avowed email addict, and the only reason that I don't have Internet access on my cell phone is that I might forget to eat after a while. But Facebook, MySpace, and their ilk all seemed to be different animals. These were the SNSs of the young and hip, or as I like to refer to them, the MOUM (masses of unmotivated morons). MySpace was to real blogs what Tammy Faye Bakker was to...well, Michelle Obama. One was overly decorated, overly self indulgent, and totally lacking in any real content. And the other was Michelle Obama.

Yes, I think I'm going to start referring to Wolfsong Enterprises as the Michelle Obama of blogs. But I digress...

I had reconnected with an old high school friend through his blog (the Janeane Garofalo of blogs), and he destroyed my last bulwark of resistance. He enticed me onto the site with the promise of seeing many an old colleague and friend. Curiosity final won out.

The moment I entered the site, I felt as if I had stumbled upon a trap door to a secret underground world where all of my old acquaintances were hiding. I stepped through the magic door, and suddenly all my old high school buddies, college buddies, grad school buddies, and my rabbi were waving to me from the open bar. "Zev!" they all seemed to shout, "We were wondering when you'd make your way down here. Have a drink!" It was, and still is, a bit unsettling.

Naturally, it wasn't long before I downloaded the most flattering picture I could find of myself (the one from last summer AFTER I lost some weight) as well as a couple pictures of my family. I only downloaded two pictures because my wife values her privacy a whole lot more than I do, and she gets very squirrelly and grumpy when I mention her by name on my blog. So, I am now a lot more careful about what information I share about my wife 'Brunhilda'.

In fact, it was many days before I admitted to my wife Helga that I had set up a Facebook page. She looked at me as if I had reported proudly, "Hey, guess what? I just got a tattoo, earring, ponytail, and a High School Musical lunchbox. Don't I look cool?"

"Isn't that for college students?" she asked. "Well..." I answered...and then I shared with her my first impressions from my week on Facebook. In fact, these are Zev's Quick Observations About Facebook.


According to a 2007 Forrester Research report, 74% of young adults (age 18-21) have a profile on some SNS. Compare that to 53% of teenagers (ages 12-17) and 25% of adults (ages 18+). About 42% of young adults use Facebook compared to only about 8% of adults. Facebook certainly appears to be a young persons toy.

College students primarily use Facebook as a social activity, that is to view and discuss people's profiles. According to a 2007 article in First Monday, for most young adults, Facebook is primarily used as a "friend function," that is "Accepting, adding, browsing through, or reviewing friends; seeing how friends are connected; showing friends other individuals." College students also use Facebook as a virtual directory of contact information for friends they already know.

My theory is that in the next 5 years, the percentage of adult users on Facebook will skyrocket. The reasons are fourfold:

  1. Facebook no longer requires a university email address. Therefore, the doors have been thrown open to EVERYBODY.

  2. All the young adults currently on Facebook will eventually become old adults, and they will take their Facebook accounts with them. Once an email addict, always an email addict. The same goes for SNSs.

  3. Many adults need a networking site that is less stodgy than LinkedIn but less tacky than MySpace. (Take THAT Rupert Murdoch)

  4. Adults have an even greater need than young adults for a networking site that puts us in contact with friends old and new for the simple reason: WE ARE OLDER AND WE KNOW MORE PEOPLE.

Q.E.D. Facebook will soon belong to the 40-year olds. Of course I'll be an old man of 50 when that happens. But I'll be a cool, happenin' 50-year old.


In the days before the Internet, anonymity was an inevitable and unfortunate result of the lack of a tangible network of local friends and family. Many people asked themselves, "If I died, how many days would it take before people notice?" Maintaining a public identity required constant activation energy.

And then came the Internet and Web 2.0 with email and SNSs. I worried that my father-in-law (i.e. Thelma's father) was headed for near obscurity when he retired and dropped his daily contact with his university crowd. Then he discovered email. Now his social life is richer than my own.

In other words, you have to be constantly vigilant just to stay hidden. It is too easy to create a Google Spoor.
    By the way, Google Spoor--the trail of information one leaves on the Internet that is visible through a Google search--is my own term and my own concept. You may use it in your daily discourse. Just remember that you heard it here FIRST.


    Identify theft is a real threat in this country as evidenced by the increased number of TV advertisements for free credit report sites. And yet, many SNS users post enough information on their Websites for a moderately talented identity thief to deduce and steal their Social Security Number. In fact, over 80% of Facebook users post their name, birthday, hometown, high school, and email, as well as posting potentially incriminating information about their personality, such as favorites, interests, political views, and relationships. Facebook allows its users to set privacy settings restricting viewer access, and although 84% of users reported that they knew of the privacy settings, only 48% actually made use of the privacy settings. In fact, 54% of Facebook users have added friends that they would not consider friends.

    In other words, in this day and age, no one can use the excuse that they did not know they were revealing too much personal information. We all know. We just don't care.


    The moment I got on Facebook, the system started telling me who my friends were. "Zev is now friends with Bob." Really? Bob (not his real name) was my college roommate. I've known him since the 8th grade. He was one of my groomsmen at my wedding. And only now he has become my friend? "Zev has become a fan of Tom Lehrer." Hello, I've been listening to Tom Lehrer since I was 12. But only now that I've clicked on a link am I a true fan.

    The most insidious aspect of Facebook is the Update Status. Unlike a blog, in which the writer may spend hours wordsmithing his intelligent discourse or arguing a cogent theory (or just sayin' stuff), the Update Status allows us to report our immediate deeds and thoughts. My first Update was, "Zev is typing that Zev is typing." I thought it would implode the system. It didn't. All it did was wait for me to tell the world something else that I was doing. And now, before I go to bed, I have the opportunity to tell my network of 'real' friends that I am going to bed.

    Eventually, keyboard interfaces will give way to direct neural taps that allow us to telepathically connect to the Internet. When that happens, we will be able to report to the world everything we are doing and thinking as we are doing and thinking it. And what's to stop the download from going both ways?

    "Zev Winicur is feeling Hungry. Zev Winicur has become a fan of Burger King. Zev Winicur is now ordering five BK Veggies. Zev Winicur is now a fan of Pepto-Bismol."

    It could happen.


    Clinical discussions of Internet addiction go back at least 10 years. Yes, even CBS news reported on the phenomenon last summer.

    Let's face it, I'm doomed. I'm becoming a Facebook junkie already, and I've only been on a week. I'm giving up my privacy, my every move is being scrutinized by high school acquaintances, and a computer is telling me who I'm allowed to be friends with. The best that I can hope for is that my father-in-law never discovers this beast. On the other hand, maybe he can become friends with his daughter...Muffy.

    Sunday, February 15, 2009

    Purim Gets a Boost

    Regular readers of my blog know by now that I have made it my mission to champion lesser known...or at least lesser promoted...Jewish holidays. In particular, I have been trying to raise Purim to the exalted status that it truly deserves. So, I applaud Senator Barney Frank for dropping a Purim reference this past Friday at a breakfast with reporters sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. He commented on the Republican party's attempts to make voters believe that only they love President Obama, while the Democratic congress is steering the president in the wrong direction. He said, "Nancy Pelosi is not Haman, Barack Obama is not King Ahashuerus, and John Boehner is certainly not Queen Esther."

    Sen. Frank's comment was certainly apt, but what was more impressive was the cavalier way Frank dropped the seasonal reference (Purim is March 10 this year). He didn't back up and say, " know, like in the Bible?" It was the best press Purim has received in recent years since Christopher Guest based "For Your Consideration" around the fictional movie "Home for Purim."

    By the way, I still have "For Your Consideration" waiting for me on my DVR. I feel terrible that I missed it the first time around, and I still haven't watched it. I hang my head in shame. What kind of Purim enthusiast am I?

    Wednesday, February 04, 2009

    Tu B'Shevat Bars

    Chag Sameach! Happy Tu B'Shevat.

    One of my traditions every year for Tu B'Shevat (the new year of the trees) is making Tu B'Shevat Bars. This recipe contains fruits from all three 'species': hard outer shell (orange, nuts), hard inner pit (dates), and entirely edible (carob, raisins, figs). The recipe uses fruits primarily found in Israel.
    I do warn you, however...these bars are addictive.

    Tu B'Shevat Bars

    1 cup raisins
    1/2 cup chopped dates
    1/2 cup chopped figs
    1/3 cup orange juice
    zest of 1 orange
    2 eggs
    1/2 cup vegetable oil
    3/4 cup brown sugar
    1/2 cup honey
    1 Tbs. vanilla extract
    1/2 cup carob powder
    1 1/2 cup all purpose flour
    2 tsp. cinnamon
    1/2 tsp. nutmeg
    1/4 tsp. ground clove
    1 tsp. baking soda
    1/2 tsp. baking powder
    1/2 tsp. salt
    1 cup chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans)

    In a small bowl, combine the raisins, dates, figs, orange juice, and orange zest. Set this aside.

    In a large bowl, beat eggs, oil, and sugar on a medium speed with an electric mixer. Add the honey slowly while continuing to beat on a medium speed. Beat in vanilla and carob powder until creamy. Stir in flour, spices, baking soda, baking powder, and salt until well mixed. Stir in nuts and fruit mixture by hand.

    Spoon into a well-greased and floured 13 x 9 inch baking pan. Bake at 325 degrees F 30 to 35 degrees or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

    Let cool completely and cut into bars. Yields about 40 bars.

    Note: this recipe contains honey, which means that it will overbake if not watched carefully. Check the bars after 25 minutes, and then check every 4-5 minutes after that.

    Tuesday, January 20, 2009

    American Royalty

    At last, America has royalty again.

    I watched the inauguration today with absolute fascination. I'm trying not to become an Obama worshipper (as opposed to a simple Obama supporter), but frankly I can't help myself. I am finding myself being pulled into the eddy of the Obama mystique. What is it exactly? Is it the history making event of the first African-American president? Is it the interplay of working class values, progressive idealism, and honest academic credentials? Is it the subtle balance of his cool demeanor with his boundless energy? Is it his focus on intellectualism and science? Is it the stunning beauty and keen intellect of the Obama women?

    Incidentally, I am waiting to see which of the Obamas becomes one of People Magazine's 100 Most Beautiful People. My money is on Sasha and Malia sharing a spot.
    But to quote the movie Airplane!, "That's not important right now."

    How about that inauguration ceremony?

    First and foremost, Obama's speech was excellent. It was dire and foreboding, yet still hopeful and empowering. It was everything we wanted to and NEEDED to hear. I think it could be paraphrased thusly:

    Thank you. Now we have a lot of work ahead of us because we are up a creek without a paddle. And this situation is not accidental. We got here because nobody stopped the actions of a few greedy, rich elitists. But don't worry. I am going to undo every stupid thing that the Bush administration did. You don't believe me? Watch my dust. And I'll need your help.
    Or something like that.

    There was a lot to like about the rest of the ceremony. Aretha Franklin proved she is still the Queen of Soul even when singing such patriotic ditties as, "My Country Tis of Thee." And I still have goosebumps from hearing Yitzhak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma, and Anthony McGill (the winner of the Avery Fisher Career Grant) play a beautiful arrangement of Simple Gifts by John Williams. It was as if the inauguration planners started one-upping each other just to see if anyone would rein them in.

    "I think we should get Yitzhak Perlman to play. He's good right?"
    "OK, if you get Yitzhak Perlman, than I want Yo Yo Ma."
    "Cool! How about we also get Anthony McGill? He's good too."
    "Yeah! Yeah! McGill...didn't he win some big award? And then they should play something by...uh...Mozart?"
    "Naa. Not big enough."
    "Uh, Bach? Copeland?"
    "No, not contemporary enough. C'mon think big."
    "John Williams?"
    "Yeah! John Williams! And then we'll get Aretha Franklin to sing something patriotic! Cool!"

    Etc., etc., etc.

    I liked Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction, although I did a doubletake when he started to get all 70's on us at the end. When he said, "If you're yellow, be mellow," one of my coworkers, who was born in China, starting singing, "They call me Mellow Yellow."

    The only low point to me was Rick Warren's invocation. It could have been a good invocation with an important message on religious and ethnic diversity, but it is cosmically impossible to get an evangelical preacher to give an ecumenical speech without mentioning Jesus. And to think that the central theme of his invocation was inclusivity and tolerance. I love good irony.

    I wonder if it was coincidental that the scriptural verse Rick Warren picked to start the invocation was the Sh'ma, the most important Jewish affirmation in the liturgy. ("Here, Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.") I can only hope so. It earns him back some points.

    But other than that, the ceremony was flawless...or as close to flawless as an inauguration will ever get.

    If y'all will excuse me, I need to go sit down and fan myself.

    Sunday, January 11, 2009

    Who Were You When?

    I never got around to posting a blog last November after the general election. You would think that I would have something to say, anything...but frankly, there was just TOO much to say. I was thinking of simply writing "YAHOOO!" and leaving it at that, but even that seemed too trite.

    And then, while I was thinking of pithy comments for my blog, everyone seemed to beat me to the punch. Everyone else commented on how this was a historic occasion, that we never thought we'd see the day, that hope had been restored to our country, that the rule of the conservatives was over, etc., etc., etc.

    I thought about writing, "Ditto!" but I think someone else wrote that as well.

    And then everyone started talking about where they were when they heard the news. People of all races and genders were out in Harlem and Chicago and many other cities braving the cold to rally support for Obama. Some people were asleep at home, and didn't find out the news until the next morning. Some were sitting shiva, some were shouting "Baruch hashem!". It was a wild night by any accounts.

    Shirah and I started whooping it up early in the evening when the Vigo County election returns were reported. As many of you may have heard, Vigo County has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1960, and it has voted closer to the national margin than any other county. So, we didn't need to wait for John Stewart to call the election. We KNEW that we had won. Way to go, Terre Haute, Indiana!

    You don't hear THAT very often. (Forgive me, Shirah.)

    What I have not heard much discussion on is the following question: WHO were you when you heard the election results? Frankly, this is a much more telling question. Were you a black woman in her mid 70s who never, ever, ever thought she would see this day in her lifetime? Were you a young high school student (of any race or ethnicity) who just couldn't see why Obama's race should have anything to do with his qualifications? Were you a member of the academic elite who saw Obama as a return to reason and intelligence in this country (finally, finally, finally)? Or were you a member of the affluent elite who saw Obama as a threat to your hard saved, hard earned, or more likely, hard inherited dollar?

    Were you a staunch ultra-right conservative who saw Obama as the beginning of the end, the fall of morality as we know it? Or were you a staunch ultra-left liberal who saw Obama as the end of the beginning, marking a return to morality in our country?

    Who were you?

    I welcome your comments, good, bad, or ugly.