11. An M.R.I. for wine bottles
Cork taint and spoilage are rarely detected until the customer sends back an expensive bottle. To find flaws before opening a rare vintage from his 50,000-plus-bottle cellar at Vernon, New Jersey’s Restaurant Latour, owner Gene Mulvihill purchased the rights to two technologies developed by University of California-Davis chemist Matthew Augustine. The wine scanner uses a medical style M.R.I. to measure the acetic acid and aldehyde—both of which indicate heat exposure or improper storage. The second device works like airport security puffer machines to spot cork taint by identifying its characteristic TCA molecule far better than human senses.
12. The digital cookbook
It might look like a spatula, but coo.boo is actually a digital cookbook that can sit on your counter or workstation. It operates through a wireless docking station that automatically synchronizes recipes stored on a computer. Cooks can either display a single recipe on the face of the spatula or watch a full-blown audiovisual cooking lesson. Still in the prototype stage, coo.boo was designed by Swiss student Philipp Gilgen and won an International Forum Design Concept Award in 2007. While it shouldn’t be used to flip burgers, unlike a laptop or print cookbook, coo.boo is washable.
13. Tell us something good
To counter the doldrums of a particularly bad news week, The Brickery Grill and Bar in Sandy Springs, Georgia, offered a “Time for Something Good” discount in their weekly e-mail to preferred customers. Guests bringing cheerful messages that ranged from the birth of a grandchild to sentiments like, “I’m glad I’m not cooking tonight,” received 20 percent off their bill. “The marketing strategy was a way to differentiate us from the big guys who can afford television blitzes,” says Brickery owner Bruce Alterman. “We ‘out smalled’ them.” Not only did the happy buzz generate traffic—sales are up more than 16 percent so far this year—but the human connection made server tips soar.
14. Age of aquarium
A 26-inch aquarium that’s as slim as a plasma TV? The AquaVista 500 uses an advanced filtration system and embedded LCD control panel to manage settings, making it possible to wall-mount a tank of tropical fish in a small space. Maintenance is minimal, says AquaVista president Scott Yen; 10 minutes every four to six weeks is all that’s needed for a one-gallon water change and algae scraping. So far, several sports pubs and casual eateries have installed the units.
15. Rock, paper, scissors, eat!
One day last June, California Tortilla customers competed with cashiers to see who would reign supreme in a battle of Rock, Paper, Scissors. The result: eaters defeated employees 62 percent of the time—in a game where the success rate averages 50 percent. Then again, patrons had more to gain—winners received $1 off their order. “Our customers did their homework and it showed,” says Bob Phillips, president of the 36-unit Rockville, Maryland-based chain. “Their preparation on strategies and drive to win were just off the charts.” In the end, the quick-casual Mexican concept came out a winner, too. Thousands of people participated in the game and it brought lots of new customers into the stores.
16. You want yoga with those fries?
The long line snaking from Shake Shack’s order window can appear daunting, especially in fast-paced New York City. So Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, which also owns upscale establishments such as Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and The Modern, installed The Shack Cam, a webcam viewed through www.shakeshack.com, to relay to prospective patrons just how long they’ll have to wait. Shack fans that do invest up to 45 minutes in the queue are greeted by Shack-Cercise signs along the way: descriptions of yoga positions that can be performed in line, which grow increasingly difficult as they near the front. Beyond its street theater entertainment value, the exercise creates room for more Shack Burgers, shakes and fries.
17. Helping the wines breathe
Most experts agree that sometimes wine needs to breathe—a little bit of air improves it—and recommend decanting a bottle to bring out its best. But in a busy restaurant, servers often can’t catch a breath themselves. That’s when the Wine Whisk comes in handy; just twirl it in a glass to aerate the vino. “The Wine Whisk brings out the flavor of the wine just as if it had been decanted,” says inventor Lisa Clement, who is also president and founder of Bead Sprouts, the company that makes the gadget. This year, she’s gone through many cases of wine in blind taste tests to prove her point, even getting a local winemaker involved. Retailing for $19.99, the eye-catching, stainless-steel whisk works two jobs—it has a wine bottle stopper on the other end.
18. Now, that’s multi-tasking
Finding time to exercise is tough. That’s why San Francisco-based Connect18 developed The Wine Tour of California, a three-DVD set you can view while riding a stationary bike or working the elliptical machines. During each session, the user is directed to do a high-intensity workout while the video shows images of a California road trip. When you get to the tours of wineries and virtual tastings, the workout ratchets down so you can focus on the content.
19. The white glove test
A poor health inspection can translate into a serious downturn in business for a restaurant. But a “clean” rating can actually increase revenues by at least 6 percent. So found Guy Michlin, a Stanford MBA who co-founded CleanScores, a San Francisco company that tracks official health inspection data and issues certificates to the cleanest restaurants. Right now, results from San Francisco and Los Angeles are available on the CleanScores Web site, but Seattle, New York and Chicago will be on board shortly and Michlin hopes to expand to other metropolitan areas.
20. Your own personal chaplain
In the early days at The Loop Pizza Grill, based in Jacksonville, Florida, co-founder and CEO Mike Schneider enjoyed the informal mentoring relationship he developed with young employees. But as the company grew, Schneider wasn’t able to maintain that personal touch. So he instituted a chaplaincy program, in which staff chaplains are available anytime an employee wants to talk about any personal issue. “If an employee asks a question about the faith of the chaplain, then the chaplain will speak about it, but it’s not a platform for proselytizing,” says Schneider. “It’s about serving our employees.”