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Food is Good.

“Jia bung!”  This magic Taiwanese phrase had me running with dogged devotion to the kitchen table. Translating literally to ‘eat food’, ‘Jia Bung’ was a signal for family and guests to gather for a meal or social occasion. At five years old, I would gleefully respond to this open invitation with the only other Taiwanese phrase I knew, “Ho le!” (translation: “Okay!”)

Over time, my responses to food have traveled the continuum of ‘Ho Les’. As a child, I screeched enthusiasm for all types of food, everything from duck tongue to Kraft Mac-and-Cheese. At school, I envied my classmates for their classic Arctic Zone and metal American Girl lunch boxes; my flimsy handy sack was devoid of name brand. Better yet, it had my Chinese name scribbled on the front. When it came time to reveal the contents of our lunches, I would marvel at the other children’s DIY pizza kits (Lunchables), ingeniously packaged Go-Gurt, and the ultimate 5th-grade treat: Dunkaroos. I desperately yearned for a kangaroo-shaped cookie but 5th-grade social protocol required that I provide something in exchange. I bartered with my fried rice and shrimp chips, even offering my dried fish snack. Meeting no success, I was effectively shut out of the elite Dunkaroos club. Food was no longer a welcoming entity.

Enter puberty. I was hungry (all the time) and craved nothing more than my mother’s tofu and deliciously greasy noodles. Yet at the age when I thought looking good mattered more than eating good, my  ‘Ho Le’ gave way to teenage angst. “Ho le, ho le- enough!” I’d exclaim, as my Mom would scoop mounds of rice, fresh veggies, barbecue pork, dumplings, and egg tart onto my plate. Western standards of beauty trampled on my once-passionate desire for food. ‘Jia Bung’- the statement that once had me running to the table- no longer held sway. With an increasingly lackluster ‘Ho le’, my ties to family and culture, rooted in food, began to fade as well.

In college, I studied abroad in the country where eating is practically a national sport, Singapore. My friends would invite me on nightlong food escapades. At first, I respectfully declined, thinking that the sight of so many tantalizing food options would lead to gluttonous behavior. But after seeing pictures of friends looking abnormally happy with Malaysian curry and Chili Crab, curiosity got the best of me. I decided to heed the call of ‘Jia Bung’.  I went with a friend to a nearby food market, boasting more than 50 flavors of moon cake.  Against my better body’s warning, I said “Ho Le” to every single sample. In the midst of digesting moon cake number I-don’t-want-to-know, I began to worry about the weight I would gain, then realized…I didn’t care. I swallowed my weight inhibitions because I realized that life just wasn’t as tasty if I was constantly worried about my intake at the free buffet of life. Though I returned to the United States 8 pounds heavier, I would never trade those extra pounds for the vital life skills I acquired through food that year: exploration, openness to flavor, and acceptance of self.

Since then, food has become less about eating and more an outlet for learning the constructs behind it. After returning from Singapore, I reviewed restaurants in my college town, Gainesville, Florida, to taste the food and interview the minds behind it. I wanted to understand business owners and their motivation for starting restaurants. This obsession with food and its alluring power persisted. Since graduating from college, I have traveled for pleasure to several other countries – Italy, Greece, Austria, Poland, China – and sampled even more food. The dishes have been vastly different, but the lesson across continents has remained the same: food is good.

What I’ve learned about food is truthfully not much different from what I instinctively knew as a child. Simply, food brings people together. You don’t need a translator to detect when someone is pleased (or disgusted) with a dish. But more importantly, food can be a gateway to conversation, which means the direct value of food only goes as far as the first few bites.  ‘Jia Bung’ will get people to a common table, but it is just a starting point. The real value is in how you accept the food thereafter, whether with nonchalance, gratitude, or a hearty ‘Ho Le’.

 

 

Now in New York, I am surrounded by a myriad of food options. Last month I tried a cookie ice cream sandwich, aptly called “The American Dream”, at Brooklyn’s food festival Smorgasburg. It was an indulgent creation: vanilla ice cream and cocoa nibs, squashed between 2 cookies made of brownie, house-made sea salt and honey-sweetened peanut butter. Cocoa and peanut butter crumbs burst from the crevices of my mouth as the sweet and salty combination melted perfectly on my tongue. Sitting beside me was a friend from Belgium. As we earnestly bit into the American Dream, we talked about the city, our lives, and what lay ahead. We each held one half of the American Dream in our hands, relishing the taste yet knowing that our conversation and company were far more valuable than anything our stomachs could hold.

To me, this is the way food should be.  Food sustains our bodily needs, but it also fulfills a rich emotional connection with others. By dining together, we facilitate conversation, thus bridging the gap between cultures, languages, and people. While America is known as the land of opportunity for its many paths to upward mobility, let us also recognize the far deeper gateways to connection.  For all the advancements our society has made, there is still no better opportunity than the chance to connect with a fellow human being over a good meal.  I’ll say “Ho le!” to that any day.

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New Journalism

I’ve visited three incredible startups in the first 48 hours since being back in New York. Some initial takeaways:

LearnVest – their first live event at the Metropolitan Pavilion on Tuesday night brought hundreds of women to learn about finances and how to live our “richest” lives.  Founder Alexa von Tobel founded the NY-based company after realizing that there was a basic disconnect among young career women on how to manage their money. She kicked off the evening with her 7 Money Mantras, which was followed by two breakout sessions from experts in dining, fashion, investing, and entrepreneurship. The evening was chalk full of helpful tips on how to save money and invest now so we can be prepared for curve balls that may derail financial stability in the future. It was extremely informative in a fun way, which is difficult to pull off for a heavy subject matter like finance.

Narratively – this is a new storytelling platform focused on long-form articles, bringing a level of depth and originality rarely seen in today’s 24-hours news cycle. They are currently based in New York but have plans to expand to additional cities in the future. Contributors have written for the Times, The New Yorker, and other respected publications. The catch? Just one story is published a day. But what Narratively lacks in quantity and distractions (each story demands its own page with zero advertising) , they more than make up for with substance. With substance comes raw and sometimes painstaking detail requiring patience and time to digest; in a nation of news skimmers, is this sustainable? I believe so. A model like Narratively’s will cater to a growing audience that increasingly craves depth and authenticity.

Behance – its goal is to connect creative talent to great opportunities by showcasing their portfolios. The premise is that the more exposure an artist gets, the more (and thereby, better) opportunities he/she will receive. The idea was born back in 2003 and now, almost 10 years later, boasts over 80 million visits a month. Aside from displaying some really awesome art, the site gives artists a way to actually make a livelihood out of their talents.  Schools and companies scour the platform for top talent. Check out all their success stories.

These are three awesome platforms with three distinct but simple purposes. LearnVest educates, Narratively tells stories, and Behance connects talent with opportunities. What happens when we merge the three? As a journalist, I’ve been thinking about how all of this can be applied to journalism.

Journalism is undergoing a seismic shift. Its original purpose was to inform and educate responsible citizens of a democracy.  This is still true but how many people actually turn to the newspaper to read up on the latest City Council action or House legislation?  As technology has changed, the stories have also changed.  We are a generation that finds little connection between journalism and democracy.  This is not criticism, but an irreconcilable truth we must simply live with. For most people under 40, information does not come through traditional means.  Aggregators like Google News use algorithms for choosing what stories matter, so gradually our cultural narrative arises socially from what we collectively follow and not from what newspapers decide to run.

Information is no longer the valuable commodity. The real value comes in networks and communities, our connections. Journalists still need to provide information by seeking the truth, but it is not the primary value-add.  What really matters is what the journalist does with the information and the varying responses to it. Engagement, inspiration, and activation are the goals.

This is a map of our emerging journalism ecosystem, courtesy of the Journalism That Matters blog. What this shows is that news is no longer single-sourced. It’s not a reporter dispensing information through a video stand-up. Multiple voices have their say now: social media, blogs, expert citizens. Talk all you want but it’s useless to spend time trying to discredit one another; a source with a logo is no more authoritative than a person typing at the computer. The savvy journalist spends time pulling all these various voices together, building a niche audience’s trust by providing credible information pulled from various sources, then facilitating a conversation.

Businesses have been successful with this. Look at American Express Publishing. They aren’t a news organization; they’re a credit card company. But AmEx has been effectively branding itself through content like Travel & Leisure, Food & Wine, and partnerships with Foursquare. They are successful at 4 things:

informing through helpful articles in niche subjects,

engaging through social media,

inspiring through compelling stories, and

activating by ultimately getting readers to act on what they’re reading (in their case, booking travels through American Express’s travel rewards program and boosting their brand equity/bottom line).

Today’s journalists need to be doing the same. Our product is our individual brand and the knowledge we dispense. We need to sell it by leading conversations in a way that builds loyalty. There are lessons to be learned from startups, because we are essentially our own startup. Like LearnVest, we must continue to inform. Like Narratively, we must find compelling stories to engage and inspire our audience to care. Lastly (and this is probably the most important), like Behance, we must activate latent social networks and interest groups by connecting them to opportunities that help them reach their goals. This will lead to an enriching experience for all: one where journalists do not simply inform, but engage, inspire and most importantly, activate the population to meet its full potential.

However abstract all of this sounds, it’s going to manifest into a more concrete model very soon. Journalism is called to serve another purpose other than report and inform. It’s much bigger than that. I believe that whoever can crack the storytelling code will be onto one of the next big things (second to the cure for cancer and life on other planets, of course). Effective storytelling can awaken latent social networks to come together and tackle issues with a collective learning-through-experience mindset.  How we choose to communicate these emerging narratives and through what forms is an exciting possibility just waiting to be unveiled.


What does it take to work at a start-up?

Abhi Lokesh and Alex Theodore are co-founders of Fracture, a start-up company based in Gainesville, Florida, and are constantly searching for the perfect team. They both agree that finding the right people to join the company is their biggest challenge.

“To me, it’s somewhat personal,” says Lokesh. “I want to prove that Fracture can be the best decision you ever made as a young professional, and that we can turn you into the best version of yourself.”

So, what do you get out of working at a start-up? Well, we all know you get free lunch at Google. But don’t expect that at all start-ups. Correction: don’t expect that at most start-ups. Do expect a never-ending workload, a lot of stress, and very few resources.  Though you may not get free lunch, there are other perks.

 Here are select responses from members of the Fracture team, who reveal some of those perks and what it takes to work at a start-up like Fracture. They work hard, but they also appear to wholeheartedly love their job, which might make you wonder what this start-up culture breeds.

What is it like to work at Fracture? 

Matthew Bivens, Marketing: It’s like no other place I’ve ever worked at, that’s for sure.  Our culture has evolved organically, and has become more defined as we have grown.  Our office environment is relaxed and casual: employees can decorate their work spaces and really make them their own (can also set up shop wherever they like); we wear what we want for the most part, still maintaining a somewhat professional demeanor (no “free mustache rides” t-shirts); and we’re allowed to bring our pets into the offices, which is a huge plus.  In typical startup fashion we have instruments of all kinds in our office, we host poker nights and try to make a point to get out and enjoy each others company outside of work on a regular basis.  We’re a family, and that’s apparent after only a few minutes of hanging out with us.

The workload here is consistently high — this is a startup, so everyone has a to-do list with more work than there are hours in a day.  Each of us was hired for a specific job, but inevitably we all wear many hats.  It’s typical to see a marketing person helping out in production, or a customer service rep brainstorming to improve packaging workflow.

Sarah Ludwig, Custom Orders: It can be really fun.  It can also be stressful, it gets intense, but it’s worth it.  It’s the first time at a job where I’ve been accountable on this level.  Everyone I work with is accountable.  I mean, I’m twenty two, and I have a key, and I have my own entry code for the alarm system.  If I do a bad job, everybody feels it; Fracture is going to feel it.  I am directly responsible for the success of Fracture.  Every person who works here is.

Honestly, that can be overwhelming.  Sometime I miss not caring about what I do.  And then I remember that I have a key.  And an alarm code.

We all work a lot, I personally work more than most of my friends.  I also get to listen to Cabaret on the speakers at the little laser (how great is that sentence) as loud as I want.  Where else can I do that?

When we were going crazy to get orders out the door during hell week, we took a break to build a robo-mascot out of a broken water cooler.  I feel completely fortunate to work with people that I feel happy around.  People I can make a robot with when things get crazy.

Matt Santmyers, Business Development: Fracture has truly best the best and most challenging job I have held. I have learned more in 1 1/2 years with fracture than four years of college. Every day I am pushed to be better and to work harder constantly pushing to improve fracture. But at the end of the day, everyone here can still kick up their feet and relax and enjoy a night out with each other. It really is a great environment to work in.

What type of person does it take to thrive in Fracture’s work environment?

Barry Miller, Production: Three words: tenacious, hard-working, innovator. When working for a growing company, the words “normal work week” do not apply. Often times, orders need to be printed, processed, and fulfilled outside of the cushy 9-5 workers in America face. It can be taxing when equipment fails, supplies arrive late, or you encounter situations that leave your best laid plans in shambles. When those situations arise, you have to be able to dust off, find a solution, and carry on with the company mission. Finally, when you are helping get a company off the ground, you must be constantly looking for ways to improve. It can be tempting to just take things at face value and go with the flow. But without constantly looking for ways to do it better, you ultimately end up hurting the company, and with a young company, small injuries can lead to major problems.

Matthew Bivens, Marketing : We’re all young here, and although we have varying degrees of experience at what we do, this is our first startup experience.  So immediately you have to check your ego at the door and realize that you might be asked to do something you have never done before; you might be asked to master something you never thought yourself capable of; and you might be asked to do it yesterday!  The great thing is that, when you have a team of people that are cool, calm, and capable, no challenge is too large to tackle.  Intelligence is a must, but I think having the capacity to learn and the hunger to keep pushing is much more important.  It starts at the top with our co-founders, and their passion and enthusiasm has definitely trickled down and influenced the rest of us.  We’ve assembled a team of Jedi here, individuals who were hired not just for their intelligence and ability to do a job well, but because they possessed the intangible skills that would allow them to thrive in a high pressure, fast paced startup environment.  

You print pictures on glass, but running a business these days involves more than simply offering said product/service (marketing, follow-up, producing relevant content, etc.). Run me through day-to-day tasks that each Fracture team member works on, apart from handling orders. 

Sarah Russell, Customer Service: We are continuing to grow and develop, and as we do that we assimilate more into our “official roles.” But that hasn’t completely detracted from one of my favorite parts of the start-up life here at Fracture – we all wear many hats. We’re a small team, but that just means we all have to be experts at what we do and then a few other things too. We’re all collectively writing the manual on how to do this. Everything about Fracture is proprietary and crafted with our customers in mind.

There is nothing typical about the day-to-today, but tasks include stocking, cutting and packaging materials on the production end. There is also printing, cleaning and shipping, which is of course crucial. There is planning and research and development projects for the future, along with web development and programming to update the site. Behind the scenes, marketing initiatives focused on the customer experience and business to business partnerships are being built and focused on. We try to keep open communication with our customers, as well, with the office phone, email and social media to stay connected and help them with anything they need. All in a good day’s work. And then there’s Watson and Sierra, the office dogs. Their jobs basically consist of tackling a few chew toys in between corporate naps.

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This article was published on NextGen Journal on April 6, 2012.

To learn more about the Fracture team, read about the company on their website.


Support the little ones

I never knew how tough it could be to say goodbye to a business. My boss closed a restaurant in Harlem on Wednesday. Hoards of people came to pay their respects with a glass (or two or three) of wine, toasting to the restaurant’s 4.5 year run.  It was a sad occasion, though by the number of people who came out (standing room only) you wouldn’t have guessed the economy was so bad. If only everyday were closing day…

All irony aside, the outpouring of support was incredible. After we officially announced the close through Twitter, tweet after tweet expressed dismay. Retweets, blog posts, and articles were written. My heart was warmed after reading about how many lives were affected by this cozy wine bar on the corner of 21st and Frederick Douglass. For many, this was their Cheers. One saddened customer wrote,

“Today is a sad day all around. It’s raining and my favorite neighborhood bar is closing. I go to Nectar because it’s my Cheers. Yes, sometimes you just want to go where everybody knows your name…There are so many things I love about Nectar, but most importantly I’ll miss seeing my friends and making new friends over a glass of Seven Sisters.”

To fully disclose my affiliation, I work for Jai Jai Greenfield, the former Wall Street trader-turned wine entrepreneur, owner of Harlem Vintage and now-closed Nectar Wine Bar NYC, as her digital assistant of sorts. It was amazing to see her strength during this difficult time, and my respect for her as both a businesswoman and individual has only grown.  She is a strong supporter of the Harlem community and always dedicates time and money to philanthropic causes. Now that Nectar is closed, all efforts will be channeled to Harlem Vintage but you can be sure that Jai Jai will still make her presence known in the community.

We drafted this letter explaining the close to customers:

After the tears are wiped, let’s put our money where our mouths are. In her farewell toast, Jai Jai emphasized the importance of supporting small businesses.

“Most small businesses are resource-constrained. It’s not just money constraints; it’s that plus time and people constraints.”

Small businesses are the heart and soul of the American economy. These places need your support. If they don’t have it, they cannot survive, let alone flourish.

So, remember to support the little ones folks.  We are lucky to have options and the ability to dine anywhere we want but in order to build a sense of community, we must support the businesses right in our own neighborhood.

Let’s toast to that.


College, Part II

I was at a networking event the other day, mostly for the tasty hors d’oeurves and the opportunity to imbibe free drinks, but figured I’d entertain some awkward conversation so my freeloading wouldn’t be so conspicuous. When someone approached me, I’d hurriedly finish my chewing (lest the silence be deafening) and begin talking mouth full with a load of quiche crumbs tumbling out. I’d chirpily extend my hand, “Hi my name is Lynne! Nice to meet you. What’s yours?!”

Nothing like an overly enthusiastic greeting that labels the “new girl on the block!” title square in the face.

So be it. I’m a Florida girl at heart and if my sunny disposition makes people squint, get some Ray Bans.  Being from Florida in a cold city actually works to my advantage because it immediately creates an easy topic for conversation: weather. Inevitably, weather talk leads to the ultimate ‘elephant in the room’ question “What do you do?” which subsequently triggers an incessant chatter up in my prefrontal cortex on how to explain who I am, what I studied, and what on earth I think I’m doing here in the city.  I panic, realizing I have no lucid way to introduce myself. So I usually start with, “Well, I drink a lot of wine…” (true story)

I’m not in any position to bestow wisdom on how to create your perfect elevator pitch and I’m not writing this post to pretend like I’m close to figuring it out.  I probably won’t ever know how to describe myself in a witty one or two-liner and the day I can, my life will be officially pathetic.  We are more complex (and interesting) than titles allow us to be.

That said, all this weather talk reminds me of another time not so long ago when I partook in a lot of chatty mingling, albeit in a less classy environment. Memories of a frenzied freshman year of college when I rushed to sign up for every organization offering community, value, and free food flood my guilty psyche. “You’ll find your best friends here!” “Make an impact!”  Back then social situations were more beer pong and club meetings offering free pizza, less wine and cheese with keynote speakers from [insert reputable global organization].

I’m about 9 months out of the old stomping yard (college) and while it’s fair to say I’m no longer a college student, I still feel endowed with a somewhat privileged collegiate mindset. Perhaps even more than I did during my four lecture-sitting years.

I don’t roll out of bed and spring to class anymore, and I don’t bump into people I try to avoid every five minutes.  Instead, I dress up, hopstop to work among suited up strangers, and carry a brown tote that looks slightly like an old man’s briefcase (it was the only one at the thrift store that could fit my dang laptop!).  During my subway ride, I whip out my cranny nook and read up on design. Trust agents. The digital sphere. Or “how to get rid of that gut!”, which just conveniently happened to be on the latest cover of Shape.

After graduation, the learning doesn’t stop.  My current line of work forces me to think digital, social media, and e-commerce while tasting new products and writing about them (which involves wine…what a bummer).  It keeps me busy, but the knowledge appetite is still not satisfied. Curiosity widens like the mouth of a hungry child with a bottomless stomach. Now that I don’t have professors to direct my questions to (ironically whom, I barely spoke to when I was actually in college), I am more curious than ever.

As a newcomer to the city, I am still trying to determine the activities and people that are worth my limited time and energy.  Of course, in order to play the game, you have to put up with some ‘small talk’. Slowly but surely, in this so very refined adult life, you whittle down the prospects to your truest, deepest interests, one glass – escargot – smooth talking schmooze-at a time.

Tomorrow I begin a wine tasting class called ‘Raise Your Wine IQ’.  (Shameless plug- my boss is teaching and you can register here!) I’m also enrolled in a month-long online course called “How to launch your startup idea for less than $5000” which sounds gimmicky, but I’m getting information far more valuable than what I sat through in college without spending a penny.  The class is being offered through the education startup Skillshare, a cool company that is trying to revolutionize education. I’m very interested to see how I can apply what I learn to a possible venture.  Throw in my dance class and bible study, compounded with the professional life, and I have my own class schedule!  I’ve never been more excited to learn in my life!

The Florida sunshine is probably blinding you but before you put on your blockers, keep this in mind:

“Your 20’s are your ‘selfish’ years. It’s a decade to immerse yourself in every single thing possible. Be selfish with your time, and all the aspects of you. Tinker with shit, travel, explore, love a lot, love a little, and never touch the ground.”

Kyoko Escamilla (a.k.a Brain-Food)

Even without a bell tower or quad, the collegiate mindset stays for however long you allow it. I am experimenting and exploring more now than the past four years.  Do I regret not doing more of this when I was actually in college? Yes and no, but it’s never too late.


In Defense of Technology

Some of you may be familiar with Foursquare, the fast growing location-based mobile application that encourages people to explore local businesses and check-in for points, potential discounts etc.  Like many, I was initially a bit hesitant with the check-in service because I couldn’t quite understand its value.

Two years ago, I asked an early Foursquare adopter what he got out of Foursquare.  His response- “It’s the future”- didn’t quite satisfy. Recently, I took another unscientific poll. Responses ranged from: “It’s pretty cool- I get free shots checking in at a bar!” to “It’s pointless.”

Well, let me take a stab.  This is primarily an argument for Foursquare, but can also serve as a general defense of technology.  It is inspired by a thoughtful post from my dear friend Sarah Kaiser-Cross’s blog about Modern Day Nomads.

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In prehistoric times, humans peeked their curious heads out of their caves and thought, “Maybe there’s something beyond this cave.  Let me take a look.”

They found rivers to swim in, branches to swing from, and tribes to powwow with. Boom- the world became their playground. Barter systems were established, log cabins constructed, new hunting practices developed.

The world was changed.

Today, we operate on slightly different terms. We peek out of our mobile devices and think, “Maybe there’s something beyond the www. Let’s go out.”

We then venture into the concrete jungle- vastly more commercialized than that of our predecessors -and experience a world replete with social transactions.

The digital sphere thus serves as a supplement. Correction: a lifestyle.  We garner Foursquare badges, spout tweets, and virtually check-in. The world whizzes by. It seems like the future has arrived before we’ve fully appreciated the present.  But I’d argue it’s not much different from the days of the past.

To me, Foursquare check-ins are just new ways of saying “Hello. Check this place out. And hey, did you know x y & z about it?”- almost like a simple hand wave from one caveman to another. Almost.

In our ‘shrinking world’, it’s easy to decry information overload. Enough! Among my less technologically-inclined friends, I am often sub-consciously in defense mode when it comes to my technological habits. Why do I blog? Why do I tweet? Why do I check-in? Who cares?

Here’s my response. With or without all this virtual chatter, we are all explorers.  Discovery is not new; it’s a prehistoric disposition.  Foursquare simply aids an innate quality.

Since coming to New York, I’ve used Foursquare to explore my surroundings.  I’ve gained helpful tips from user reviews of restaurants I would otherwise know nothing about. Last week, I discovered a new restaurant (The Masala Wala) through Foursquare’s Explore tab, which afterward became the first addition to my list of “regulars”- a compilation of my favorite ‘highly recommended’ places.  Just as I have gained value from the opinions and feedback of others, I share and publicize so that others may find my tips helpful as well.

Foursquare is also being used at universities to enhance knowledge of historic buildings on campus. Some universities including the University of Florida are looking into leveraging the Foursquare API so locations on the map can have user-generated content, such as photos, according to Bruce Floyd, lead social media specialist at UF.

We don’t live in an information age, we live in an age of networked intelligence.  Foursquare is at the center of this movement to help us discover good things that are worth our time and money through the most basic additions to our existence:  fellow humans.

As our world grows smaller, I understand why skeptics continuously ask, WHY?  And I appreciate it. To retain our humanity, we must continuously ensure that each new tool truly adds value, lest our minds be inundated with clutter.

For me, Foursquare’s value lies in its ability to tie the past, present, and future.  We live in the future with the virtual check-ins, yet engage in communal practices originated from the past, while enhancing our experience NOW.

As Sarah describes, the modern day nomads are the people more businesses will want to resonate with:

The modern day nomads come in every shape, size and color. We are the people who break barriers. We are the people to introduce ourselves to someone who has never met an American, we are the people who eat tongue or intestines and enjoy it, we are the ones who learn the cultural dialect no one else speaks, we are the ones who are changing the world. Never staying in one place, the desire to experience the new, the unknown is unquenchable. Packing up and landing in the next place, the modern day nomads are a continuation of the nomadic developments since the beginning of time. We, however, are different in one very important way. We’ve got Facebook. ha. Just kidding. But really, we have the ability to spread our new-found knowledge, self and cultural awareness to others. Understanding is the only way to stop war, suffering, stereotypes and misinformation. So, fellow nomads, lead well, learn much, and share what you’ve learned so the world can learn with you.

We are explorers.  Complain all you want, but technology like Foursquare taps into our human drive for discovery and social connection. Use it and you might find yourself saving money, time, and learning more about the world around you. What can be more basic and beautiful than that?


Lesson #3: Beyond the transaction, connecting is key.

How did we ever find good restaurants and services before the Internet?  I remember the days when observations like “Mrs. Smith told me that her friend’s son’s girlfriend’s mother’s ex-husband recently opened an Italian restaurant that’s pretty decent” were considered highly useful.  Based on these sole recommendations, off we’d go to the pizzeria- such adventurers- usually only to be…disappointed.  Ah, back to the same old Chinese takeout then.

These days, not a whole lot has actually changed.  We still discover places through word of mouth but the web of connections is definitely not single-sourced, and certainly not expressed so confusingly.  Instead, the tangled web of connections is known simply as “Yelp”, “Foursquare”, or “Foodspotting”.

I’ve always been a fan of trying new places. When I reviewed food in my little college town of Gainesville, I was like Mowgli exploring the Amazon.  So you can imagine what fun I’m having exploring a metropolis like New York.

Yelp and Foursquare have been my travel partners in crime. They’re like those trendy friends who know the ins and outs of the city. They are the go-to experts on everything ranging from the best peppermint cocoa in Brooklyn (Gimme Coffee!- thanks Yelp) to the cheapest salon in the area for an urgent eyebrow waxing need (thanks Foursquare).

However, amid all the plethora of choices, I’ve begun to yearn for a regular go-to place. You know, like that favorite neighborhood diner you frequent far too much?  In Gainesville, that was my dear Maude’s (coffeeshop with the best cheescake).  Today, I think I found the first locale to start my New York list.  The Masala Wala is located on the Lower East Side just a block away from the famous Katz’s Deli. It greeted me with rich brown decor, reminiscent of the aromatic spices of India.  The place is small, but that adds to the appeal.  I felt comfortable whipping out my laptop and working like I was at Starbucks, even while people around me formally dined.  Certainly helped that there was free wi-fi.

My first night here, the waiter gave me a free sample of mango lassi.  I ordered the Masala Chai (their staple drink), which paired well with the vegetarian kofta (a pan-fried dish with carrots and beets, pictured above).  I returned for the second time today not so much because the food was delicious (though it certainly was), but because of the impeccable service. My waiter last time was so attentive and I couldn’t forget the owner’s welcoming smile, a friendly Indian man who encouraged me to stay as long as I wanted for good food or even just the free wi-fi.

While sipping on Masala Chai today, I met the vision behind the restaurant, Roni Mazumdar, who emerged from the kitchen to tell me the story behind its opening just a month ago. A joint venture between him and his now-retired father, The MasalaWala is the product of years of experimenting and loving authentic Indian food.  With a flair for India’s street food, it brings you fast-casual with the usual naan but also some lesser known dishes found under Chat-Pat (Street-Side Favorites).  The menu is a mere two pages, not too overwhelming, which thankfully means it might actually be possible to try every dish here at least once.  Deliciousness cannot go to waste.

As if I didn’t already like the place enough on taste and decor alone, after hearing Roni’s passionate recount of why he opened the business, I felt more compelled to write and share the goodness of it to all.  Roni is a man of many trades- engineer by day, an actor on the side, owner of a production company, and now entrepreneur- but that’s not much of a surprise because you can see all of this incorporated into the restaurant with its sustainability (100% biodegradable tableware) and technological know-how (e-receipts and iPad point of sale!) Super impressed. This is how local business should be done.

I should mention that I stumbled upon this place through a TastingTable newsletter titled “Triply Good Chai in New York” (which by the way was forwarded to me from a friend in Florida).  After reading the article, I perused Yelp for reviews (perfect 5-star rating!), Foursquare for tips, and the restaurant’s website for general information and presentation.  When a place gets high marks from nearly all parties, you’ve found a gem that cannot be missed.

With the unveiling of some exciting new additions in the near future (Happy Hour with South Asia-influenced drinks, plus Indian-Chinese fusion dishes?!?!) , I am certain that The MasalaWala will be at the forefront of some up-and-coming fast yet sophisticated Indian street food movement.

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In a city like New York where transactions are done in 1-2-3, connection is still key.  Most customers will come back to a place for its great taste and value, but the most loyal ones are baited for far greater reasons: strong purpose translated into action, a vested interest in customers, and serving them well.  Beyond the transaction, connection is key.

My experience today would not have been possible without modern social digital tools. Thanks to TastingTable for notifying, Foursquare and Yelp for verifying its legitimacy, and the thousands of people for writing, rating, and recommending, allowing places of real value to surface.

By the way, The MasalaWala hasn’t had to spend a dime on advertising.  When the product is good and you have an engaging online presence, there’s no need. May the word continue to spread.