Red Medicine and the no-shows

Since the dawn of the World Wide Web, no longer have restaurant reviews been the exclusive domain of professional restaurant critics. Services like Yelp have enabled reviews of restaurants (and other establishments), both for better and for worse, by average customers.

But, suddenly some no-show customers at a Beverly Hills restaurant found the shoe on the other foot. This story on KGTV (San Diego ABC affiliate) made a lot of waves, because this time Noah Ellis, the owner of Red Medicine, tweeted the full names of several no-shows after getting sick and tired of losing money from people either missing their reservation or cancelling at the last minute.

This tweet:

All the nice guests who wonder why restaurants overbook and they sometimes have to wait for their res should thank people like those below.

and this quote from the owner (which came from the KGTV story) should give you some idea of the frustration level involved:

The (expletive) who decide to no-show, or cancel 20 minutes before their reservation (because one of their friends made a reservation somewhere else) ruin restaurants (as a whole) for the people who make a reservation and do their best to honor it. Either restaurants are forced to overbook and make the guests (that actually showed up) wait, or they do what we do, turn away guests for some prime-time slots because they’re booked, and then have empty tables.

And if that’s not enough this LA Times article has this quote from a competing chef:

[A competing chef] said he usually responds to no-shows with “Cursing, a lot of f-words and other kitchen-speak. It’s the equivalent of being stood up. Not that I’ve ever been stood up. But I can imagine how it feels with how many no-shows and last-minute cancellations we’ve gotten.

And then, days later, this article on grubstreet.com details that at least one of those no-showing had a death in the family which she found out about less than a half-hour from making the reservation, and that she had only called in the reservation at 6pm for dinner at 7:30pm. According to her, staff at Red Medicine had her cell phone number and never called to see what had happened, and it was (understandably) the last thing on her mind to call and cancel the reservation.

(For the moment, I’m going to set aside that this is the same restaurant that once refused service to S. Irene Virbila and her party, and posted her picture, back in late 2010. As it happens, I blogged about that one too; if you want my post about that incident, you’re welcome to go back in the archives and read it.)

I can see both sides of the story here. Since I’m not a restaurant owner, first I will approach this from the point of view of a restaurant guest (which I have been many times, though not often at the level of restaurants similar to Red Medicine).

I think a death in the family is a valid reason to skip a restaurant reservation. For me, hearing a relative had just passed on would certainly ruin my appetite. If I had made a restaurant reservation at 6pm, and gotten that call around 6:20-6:30pm, it would depend a lot on circumstances if I was able to keep my thoughts in order long enough to remember to call to cancel; I might be able to, and then again I might not. Certainly, though, if the restaurant has my phone number and call to ask where I am, I’d tell them why I wasn’t able to make it. So if the woman’s story is true, then Red Medicine’s staff really dropped the ball and made an already bad situation even worse for at least one potential customer.

We don’t know the stories behind why the other six no-shows didn’t honor their reservations, and in all likelihood, we probably never will. I’m going to go out on a limb, though, and assume that the others had reasons which were much less serious than a death in the family. If it was simply a case of someone else in the party having reservations elsewhere, that’s a no-brainer: I would call and cancel as soon as I know. Even if it’s something like accidentally losing the credit/debit card that I was going to pay for dinner with, or problems with the vehicle I’d be driving down there (let’s face it, Red Medicine’s clientele don’t hop the bus down there), I’d rather call and cancel than just no-show.

From a restaurant owner’s point of view, perhaps more could have been done so that things didn’t get to this point. I certainly would want to know why people are no-shows at my restaurant so often. Maybe Noah and his staff already knew or at least already thought they knew. While I’ll probably get my share of flames for just trying to see Noah’s side of the story, it’s entirely possible this has been an ongoing problem they have been trying to resolve for months or years.

That said, there’s enough controversy about this that this isn’t something every restaurant owner should seriously consider. Red Medicine got at least three one-star reviews on Yelp in retaliation that I saw (and no telling how many others which will bubble up to the top once the reviewers better establish themselves), one of which suggested the restaurant should consider converting to walk-ins only. While I’m sure the reviewer meant well, that kind of a change either goes very right, or very wrong. Most places which require reservations require them because otherwise they’d lose many more customers without them, since many are bound to give up on a restaurant as the odds of getting a table equal and then become far worse than winning a decent amount on a scratch-off lottery ticket.

Only time will tell just how right, or how wrong, this move was. One thing’s for sure: if I get to visit LA and dine at Red Medicine, I will honor any reservation I make. The last thing I need is bad publicity.

What does the NCAA really stand for?

I haven’t done a good sports-related post in forever. Apparently, it takes a broken leg to get me interested in college sports. I’ve learned more about how the NCAA started than most college fans probably want to know, and I’m shocked by what I’ve found out.

This ThinkProgress article on Kevin Ware’s broken leg takes a pretty big swipe at the NCAA. It quotes a story from the 2011 October issue of The Atlantic at length, which while being over a year old, is still quite timely and relevant:

Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority—indeed much of the justification for its existence—is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the “student-athlete.” The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of the “student-athlete” lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed … to help the NCAA in its “fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.”

…The term came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workmen’s-compensation death benefits. …

The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.

Now, think about this last paragraph in the light of such things as the Texas “No Pass No Play” rule, which came into effect in 1985–and has had unintended deleterious consequences, I might add. (Without going off on too much of a tangent, let’s just say youth gangs don’t care what’s on the last report card.)

The rule was originally intended to decrease failing grades by eliminating “distracting” sports, mainly for students in football, and mainly those who failed two or more courses. (If memory serves me correctly, the news exposé at the time brought to light students who failed four or more courses.) Instead of a rule focused strictly on the biggest part of the problem, the Texas version of the rule lets any teacher who can find a way to flunk a student have complete control of whether or not that student is in any extracurricular activities. Yes, there are (or at least were) teachers who will get “creative” and round down a 69.9 average so the student gets an “F” instead of a “D”. Bam! Game over. No sports, no band, no choir, no part in the school play for the next six weeks. I was stuck in “cadet band” one semester because of this, and I got a failing grade in band (68) during a grading period as a result due to the ridiculous number of demerits that being in “cadet band” set me up for. The school counselor, not surprisingly, didn’t believe me. (This is why I quit school band after that year.)

So, back on topic… any way you slice it, the bit about not meeting the academic standards of their peers is definitely hogwash today. Being on the football or basketball teams is not an excuse for having lower grades and honestly, I don’t realistically think it ever was.

The article from The Atlantic goes into detail about just how the NCAA has resorted to selling game broadcast videos and made other merchandising deals in apparent exploitation of the athletic students it should be protecting. A small portion of this:

All of this money ultimately derives from the college athletes whose
likenesses are shown in the films or video games. But none of the profits go to them. … Naturally, as they have become more of a profit center for the NCAA, some of the vaunted “student-athletes” have begun to clamor that they deserve a share of those profits. You “see everybody getting richer and richer,” Desmond Howard, who won the 1991 Heisman Trophy while playing for the Michigan Wolverines, told USA Today recently. “And you walk around and you can’t put gas in your car? You can’t even fly home to see your parents?”

… “Once you leave your university,” says [Ed] O’Bannon, who won the John Wooden Award for player of the year in 1995 on UCLA’s national-championship basketball team, “one would think your likeness belongs to you.”

Later on in the article comes a huge indictment of how the NCAA defines amateur status. I obviously can’t quote the entire article here but this should give you some idea what’s at stake. We have, on one hand, the NCAA, which has gone from its original mission to what is in effect a near-monopoly on college sports, using this flimsy excuse that college athletes are amateurs to first, exclude them from worker’s compensation claims, and second, to keep them from even negotiating with professional sports teams at all without risking their supposed amateur status.

The idea that (most) college athletes are amateurs is absurd. College athletes are paid when they get an athletic scholarship. (The walk-ons might be true amateurs, thus the “most” above.) The NCAA is truly treating college athletes like professionals by licensing their likenesses and, worse, not paying them for the privilege. The Olympics abandoned amateur status requirements back in 1986, for better or for worse. On top of this, it strikes me as just plain silly to rule players ineligible just for testing the market by negotiating with a professional team–even if no money changes hands.

This would be less of an issue if not combined with the most utterly short-sighted and galactically stupid limit of one year on scholarship commitments. Add this all up and you have the following: college athletes are at the mercy of their coaches and pretty much commit to playing their sport of choice for all four years to have a chance to graduate, if their coaches will let them. If the coach decides to cut an athlete the following year–boom! It’s either don’t graduate, hope to qualify for a Pell grant, or take out student loans.

I will probably revisit this topic at a later date. It will take me time to find suggestions on ways to fix the problems, because there are simply too many. But it’s clear to me that the NCAA as it stands today, stands for what is wrong with college athletics. We, the sports fans of the US (and the world), deserve better.

The great PyCon lewd joke controversy of 2013

This one hits remarkably close to home for me. It’s a storyline we’ve seen so many times: person A sees something done/said by person B and posts it to a blog/Twitter/Facebook taking exception to it, person B doesn’t like being called out, all hell breaks loose.

Here are the relevant stories and blog posts I found, in what I believe to be chronological order:

The storyline, for those who haven’t read it: Adria Richards attends PyCon, and has the unfortunate luck of sitting in front of two PlayHaven developers who make rather tasteless computer geek jokes about “forking” and “big dongles.” Adria posts a picture of them on Twitter with a description of what’s going on. PlayHaven doesn’t like having their brand attached to this kind of thing, and fires one of the developers. Anonymous, the group responsible for generally wreaking technical havok with DDOS attacks when something happens that they don’t like, decides to launch a DDOS attack (big surprise) against SendGrid. SendGrid fires Adria.

Adria’s blog post linked above describes that the decision to post what she did was carefully thought out. She even links to the PyCon code of conduct, which I’ll quote in part (from the short version):

PyCon is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion. We do not tolerate harassment of conference participants in any form.

All communication should be appropriate for a professional audience including people of many different backgrounds. Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue, including talks.

Be kind to others. Do not insult or put down other attendees. Behave professionally. Remember that harassment and sexist, racist, or exclusionary jokes are not appropriate for PyCon.

It’s obvious to me that the sexual jokes about forking and about large dongles very clearly cross the line. In fact, there is no way that any sane person can read the above parts of the PyCon code of conduct in a way where this kind of thing would be allowed. There’s no information on whether or not they were allowed to stay at PyCon from that point forward (possibly on purpose, more on this later). Certainly, there’s a strong case for kicking them out of the conference without a refund.

There are also people saying the PlayHaven developer who was fired shouldn’t have been. It’s really hard for me to agree with that point of view. He knew the rules, he broke them, he made his company look bad, he was fired. I don’t care if he does have three kids. Maybe his kids, once they grow up, can learn from their daddy’s mistake: break the rules, lose your job. Hey, I’ve been fired from jobs for smaller mistakes before, and I have a friend who was fired from a job for little more than getting hurt on the job (long story).

Adria shined a bright light on this flagrantly unacceptable conduct. Honestly, I think it needed to be exposed. This is 2013, and while some decades ago it may have been unusual for women to work in the technology industry, that is no longer the case. The only thing that could be worse than two guys making clearly inappropriate jokes at a tech conference, is having someone bring this conduct to light–and lose her job for it. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what has happened to Adria.

PyCon appears to want to address this type of situation going forward by placing an emphasis on confidentiality and privacy, which I disagree with in principle. I think the threat of bad publicity has done far more to raise awareness of this issue than anything done under the cloak of privacy and confidentiality.

I do realize Adria’s job is developer relations, and in that context, it’s unfortunate that SendGrid decided to say “[Adria’s] actions have strongly divided the same [developer] community she was supposed to unite.” It makes me wonder if perhaps there exists a population of (mostly male) developers at SendGrid that felt they have the right to make these kind of jokes. That’s the only way I can see Adria’s actions being divisive. If that’s the case, maybe SendGrid should be beefing up their sensitivity and harassment training. Certainly this would do much more for developer relations than firing an employee for speaking out against a flagrant violation of a conference’s conduct guidelines.

I’ll close with two of the better quotes from the two blog posts. First, from Adria’s:

The forking joke set the stage for the dongle joke. Neither were funny.

And second, from Steve’s:

Want to keep your job or save face after you’ve made sexist jokes at a tech conference?

Don’t make sexist jokes at a tech conference.

That sums it up far better than I ever could.