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Reservations and Regulars at Momos and


Fat Guy
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Remind me again when it was that Chang said the reservation system was going to be egalitarian.

''It's egalitarian,'' he says. ''We want to run something honest.''

Right you are. A poor word choice on his part. I think he's achieved something honest and I think he's achieved something as fair or fairer than the vast majority of systems being used by restaurants.

Unrelated but the only restaurant I can think of that could call itself egalitarian with a straight face was a place in Vancouver - maybe it's still there - where you could show up any time of the day or night, eat as much as you wanted, and pay as much or as little as you wanted for the meal. Or pay nothing. Of course the food was awful and it was run by the Hare Krishnas.

Edited by jimk (log)
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just because everybody has an equal chance to get in doesn't mean that it will turn out that way. flip a coin 10 times, it doesn't always turn out 5:5 head:tails.

if someone gets a reservation and you don't, well, that's just luck. and luck is pretty egalitarian.

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Well, that kind of luck is by no means obviously egalitarian to me -- especially not when it's so easy to design a system that allows everybody to have a turn. But to look at the example given:

Chances are, yes, if you flip a coin repeatedly then you'll see all sorts of patterns of heads and tails. You could even see ten heads in a row, though over large numbers of flips you'd tend to see a very clear 50-50 pattern.

But that has nothing to do with the Momofuku Ko reservations scenario. In a lottery system, if somebody with long odds keeps winning they don't just say, "Oh well, if you flip a coin you might see some weird patterns." No, they initiate a fraud investigation.

In any event, I'm suggesting that perhaps not everybody has an equal chance in this system. That, for one thing, technical factors may give advantages to people using certain ISPs -- and that the existence of repeat winners raises that possibility to more than a suspicion. And, for another thing, I think we may not all be working from the same definition of "egalitarian."

For example, assuming it's even possible to have egalitarianism in the context of a business that charges $100 for dinner, I don't think there's anything uniquely un-egalitarian about that business rewarding its loyal customers. There's nothing un-egalitarian about airline frequent flier rewards -- they're just business incentives and rewards; they don't reject the notion of human equality.

I do, however, think it's utterly un-egalitarian to give preferential treatment to "industry people." Not that I object to it, but it's not egalitarian. The decision to give preferential treatment to industry people does not mesh with the notion of equality.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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In any event, I'm suggesting that perhaps not everybody has an equal chance in this system. That, for one thing, technical factors may give advantages to people using certain ISPs -- and that the existence of repeat winners raises that possibility to more than a suspicion. And, for another thing, I think we may not all be working from the same definition of "egalitarian."

Not everyone has an equal chance in the NYC marathon either - genetic dispositions, ability to train a certain amount, and a training regimen, finances for proper clothing and nutrition, etc all give some competitors an advantage over some others. But at the same time the race is fair - everyone runs the same distance following the same rules. So I'd agree that egalitarian by its strict definition doesn't apply to Ko reservations or the NYC marathon but if Chang was using the word as shorthand for 'fair' as I suspect he didn't check his OED then I'd agree with him that his system is generally fairer than most. I'd say on the whole it's more accessible at least because more people have the ability to give up 3 minutes at 10am trying to get a resy onling than have an hour to set aside every day hitting redial.

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Let's keep remembering that David Chang is on record, on more than one occasion, saying he's planning to make exceptions for industry people. So any notion of fairness, egalitarianism, what have you, is already out the window.

But even if we're only talking about the general population that won't be getting special treatment, just changing from the word egalitarian to the word fair doesn't change the terms of the discussion. What is meant by either word?

If we're talking about "equality of opportunity" (which I suppose is close to the Rawls/Dworkin idea of "luck egalitarianism") then there's nothing unfair about systems that reward regulars -- because every person within the set of people lucky enough to be born into circumstances where they can rise to be able to afford $100 for dinner has an equal opportunity to become a regular. So how is the Momofuku Ko system more fair? Nor is accessibility fairness, unless it can be demonstrated that some coherent group of people (such as wheelchair-bound people wishing to ride public buses) is being treated unfairly by lack of accessibility. In that regard, there is no evidence that an online system is more or less accessible than a phone system.

However, it is patently obvious that both the queue and lottery systems I outlined are more accessible, fair and egalitarian than either the standard phone system or the Ko online system.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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However, it is patently obvious that both the queue and lottery systems I outlined are more accessible, fair and egalitarian than either the standard phone system or the Ko online system.

I'm not sure this rises to the level of "patently obvious" or even "probable." How would this work better on a practical basis?

Let's look at the queue model: According to your proposal, they would open up the reservations queue at some date, and people could load it up. Your specific example proposes offering a reservation slot nine months in the future. How is this egalitarian? This seems to unduly favor not only people who were "in the know" about Ko to the tune of 9 months of more in advance of other people, but unduly favors metro-NYC residents, since most visitors to the city are unlikely to know about their plans 9 or 6 months in advance -- especially where they might like to go to dinner. Would there also be some mechanism in place to prevent someone from placing his name in the queue 500 times and then picking and choosing (or giving away) the reservations they want? This would be simple to do for anyone with a knowledge of email forwading aliases and proxy servers (this favoring the technologically savvy). A queue system would either be too short a queue to offer any benefits over the current system, or would be so long as to be about as egalitarian as the queue to buy season tickets for the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, which currently favors those whose parents guessed they might like season tickets some ten years before they were born.

A lottery system, performed on a daily basis, seems a bit more egalitarian, but still has many potential problems. Presumably the system would have some way of accounting for reservations for parties of two or one, which might involve some fairly tricky weighting math depending on how egalitarian you wanted to make the lottery (Does a reservation for two get one chance or two chances in the lottery? How do you account for the fact that some chances take away two slots whereas others only take away one?). And, of course, the technologically savvy should be able to game a lottery system to their advantage fairly easily. Presumably they're not going to assign staff to visually check the lottery entrants on a daily basis, and anyone with imagination and technological savvy could fool an automated computer system using proxy severs (to fool IP address checking), email forwarding aliases (to fool email address checking) and variations of, say, Steven Shaw, Steve Shaw, S. Shaw, Steven A. Shaw, Steve A. Shaw., S. A. Shaw, Ellen Shapiro, etc. It's even possible to get one-time credit card numbers for use online.

Either system has the problem that you don't know right away whether you got your reservation, which is a major advantage of the current system.

Now, it could be possible to make these models more "game-proof" and egalitarian (the lottery system much more so than he queue system) but it would require a much more sophisticated system, and most likely one that requires a certain amount of human monitoring. Meanwhile, the advantages over "first X reservations to click through starting at 10AM two weeks out" seem slight for the work and complexity that would be required to make another system work. The question is whether the system is reasonably fair and egalitarian, and the answer seems to be that it is. It doesn't seem reasonable to invent an entirely new system with much greater complexity and security, that is more burdensome to most customers, in order to solve the problem that some people seem to have a faster connection to the reservations server than others.

One possible solution might be to set aside a small number of reservations each day (say 4 seats) for a small lottery in order to accommodate those who may not have been able to reserve due to a slow internet connection to the Ko server. Even this would carry some significant technological burden for Ko, however, and may simply not be worth that amount of extra trouble.

--

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Sam, I think you're conflating a few things. First of all, how well a system defends against cheating is not really a measure of "egalitarianism." I think, however, leaving aside that the current system is being gamed anyway, it's a lot easier to defend against most identity-fraud-based cheating than you think, especially when payment is part of the mix. Second, there's no real complexity added by having different party sizes. You just have to manage each queue or lottery separately, as is done now anyway. You can even tell people (as is the reality now) that it's going to be easier and quicker to get a single than a double than a quad. The other technological specters that you raise are actually quite minor -- they're easier to deal with than, for example, having a small server hammered by thousands of people for one minute a day. Third, the real-estate example is not really on point. We're not talking about a 20-year waiting list for a handful of openings. We're talking about thousands of openings. I don't know the actual number of people who've registered for the Ko system, but it's not likely anywhere near the order of magnitude necessary to create a Peter Cooper type of situation. The most out-of-whack example I know of in the world is El Bulli, which purportedly gets 500,000 reservation requests for 8,000 seats. My understanding is that El Bulli uses a lottery system with set-asides for various groups (visiting chefs, locals, journalists, etc.) and does just fine with it. And people do plan ahead a year to go to El Bulli. Finally, the salient feature of the current system that is hard to characterize as fair is that some people are getting in repeatedly and others are not at all. The systems I've proposed would guarantee entry to everyone eventually, and limit repetition as much as possible.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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For the moment, let's forget about the word Chang used, "egalitarian". By now, it ought to be clear to all that Chang never means what he says. Whether the system actually meets Chang's description of it is fairly close to irrelevant, except to point out, once again, his tendency to bend the truth.

I think the most relevant comparison is the early days of Per Se. In recent times, I cannot think of another new restaurant where the demand for limited seats was as intense.

With that in mind, I cannot say that the Ko system is any worse than what Per Se did. To get into Per Se, you had to commit roughly 30-45 minutes every day at 10:00 a.m. That was, on average, the amount of redialing and waiting-on-hold that it took to either get a reservation, or determine that none was available. To get into Ko, you have to commit about 60-90 seconds every day at 10:00 a.m. That's how long it takes to either get a reservation, or determine that none is available.

Per Se relies on an older technology that everyone has access to, and is comfortable with: the telephone. Ko relies on a new technology that some people don't have access to, or aren't comfortable with. Since Per Se's technology has been around awhile, there aren't any significant bugs. Since Ko's technology is brand new, there have been some glitches.

Although they use different technologies, both Per Se (in the early days) and Ko require you to be available at exactly 10:00 a.m. People who aren't near a phone (in Per Se's case) or aren't near a computer (in Ko's case), or who are busy at that time, are out of luck.

Overall, I'd call it a tie.

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To get into Ko, you have to commit about 60-90 seconds every day at 10:00 a.m. That's how long it takes to either get a reservation, or determine that none is available.

As I've already noted, it seems from my limited experiments that the most reliable way to get a reservation at Ko is to hang out on the website all day and all night, hoping for a cancellation to pop up. This system nearly guarantees a reservation but requires that you attend to it all the time.

Since Ko's technology is brand new, there have been some glitches.

Real-time online reservations technology is about a decade old. I believe OpenTable launched in around 2000, and I think there was another (now defunct) company doing it around then too.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Since Ko's technology is brand new, there have been some glitches.

Real-time online reservations technology is about a decade old. I believe OpenTable launched in around 2000, and I think there was another (now defunct) company doing it around then too.

Here I agree with you. I think it was hubris that led Chang to develop his own system, when a very well vetted alternative was available.

Let me add one other drawback, though it has nothing to do with technology. I see no reason at all why Ko limits reservations to six days in advance, which makes it awfully difficult for out-of-town visitors.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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A couple of additional observations -- I can't be sure but I think this is what's going on -- that may help would-be diners:

- It seems that some time around 6am every day they lock down the system and open it up at 10am. If a cancellation comes in during that time frame, my sense is that it shows up when the system opens back up at 10am. So if you play the 10am game be on the lookout for the occasional green check-mark in a column other than the far-right one -- especially the far left, because same-day cancellations are the most common kind. There's likely to be less competition for that green check.

- We've heard some reports here of people getting to the 60-second confirmation page but then losing the reservation due to system malfunctions. From this I hypothesized that, assuming this is a common problem, at exactly 10:01am every day there should be green checks showing up. And indeed the two times I've tested this hypothesis there have been. So don't give up just because you don't see any green checks. Be sure to refresh at 10:01am -- something might come back into circulation.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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- We've heard some reports here of people getting to the 60-second confirmation page but then losing the reservation due to system malfunctions. From this I hypothesized that, assuming this is a common problem, at exactly 10:01am every day there should be green checks showing up. And indeed the two times I've tested this hypothesis there have been. So don't give up just because you don't see any green checks. Be sure to refresh at 10:01am -- something might come back into circulation.

Sometimes cancelations show up at random times. I snagged a reservation late last night for the 6:00 PM slot this evening. It's the "four-top", so I need to find folks to go with me. PM if you're interested. :smile:

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Noticed a couple of other things today:

1. The confirmation screen now says not only that you're limited to two reservations per week, but also that the limitation includes cancellations. So that should limit those of us who like to play with the system.

2. The cancellation procedure now requires that you log in to they online system, which should prevent another ambiguous Gael Greene situation.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I think this is a great way to guess the current market rate of a Ko reservation (i.e, what they could charge if they wanted to reduce demand to supply). My guess is that some of that price is driven by a desire to give to charity, but that Masa like pricing would probably keep the chairs full for now.

New on the reservations website today: a reservation auction for charity

That dinner for 2 at Ko ($500 value: 2x $100 + $150 wine pairing) just closed at $2,870.

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I think this is a great way to guess the current market rate of a Ko reservation (i.e, what they could charge if they wanted to reduce demand to supply).

Maybe, but there are some special circumstances:

1. As you noted, it's for charity.

2. The reservation is open-ended as to date and time.

3. Only one was made available this way. (Given number 2, it would be impossible to do them all this way.)

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Certainly all true. Thought it was more of an indicator than anything else. But I do note that you could do the same with a normal reservation for a better sense. Also, Eater links to a discussion at Porfolio of the same topic, making the point that Chang could defray rising food costs by auctioning some seats each week.

(http://www.portfolio.com/views/blogs/market-movers/2008/06/29/momofuku-ko-datapoint-of-the-day?rss=true)

I've always wondered why restaurateurs didn't experiment with various pricing gimmicks (my favorite to try would be pricing by the minute), but Chang especially has the leeway to do something interesting.

I think this is a great way to guess the current market rate of a Ko reservation (i.e, what they could charge if they wanted to reduce demand to supply).

Maybe, but there are some special circumstances:

1. As you noted, it's for charity.

2. The reservation is open-ended as to date and time.

3. Only one was made available this way. (Given number 2, it would be impossible to do them all this way.)

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I've always wondered why restaurateurs didn't experiment with various pricing gimmicks

I think the basic answer is that such market mechanisms are widely perceived as inhospitable. Which doesn't really make sense given that, in the end, the customer is paying anyway, and given that hotels and airlines use all sorts of experimental pricing schemes, but that's the way it is.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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With that in mind, I cannot say that the Ko system is any worse than what Per Se did. To get into Per Se, you had to commit roughly 30-45 minutes every day at 10:00 a.m. That was, on average, the amount of redialing and waiting-on-hold that it took to either get a reservation, or determine that none was available. To get into Ko, you have to commit about 60-90 seconds every day at 10:00 a.m. That's how long it takes to either get a reservation, or determine that none is available.

I'm not sure I advocated using Per Se's system, however just to examine the claim:

If you really want to determine whether there's an available reservation at Ko, you need to spend 24 hours a day looking for cancellations. With the Per Se old-school system, you could put your name on a waiting list.

In addition, the 60-90 second claim assumes you're already at your computer, have precise schedule management, etc. I've found more realistically that it's about a 15-minute commitment. Plus, you have to be at your computer or you need a robust mobile device (my mobile browser can't handle the Ko site), whereas you could call Per Se from your cell phone. You could also, if you were at your desk, just leave the hold music on your speaker phone and do other work, whereas with Ko it's a more active commitment.

Moreover, I don't think an online system and a phone-in system are mutually exclusive. Doesn't Per Se make some reservations available on OpenTable?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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yes, Per Se is on open table (and four tops are easy to get that way)

They weren't when it first opened, though—which is the relevant point of comparison.

Except that was 2004 and this is 2008, and Per Se wasn't using some other online system -- it was just not doing any online bookings for the first few months (then it started releasing some tables to the OpenTable web service).

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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  • 2 weeks later...

New on the Ko reservations site, if you successfully make a reservation:

your reservation has  temporarily been held...

to secure this spot you must agree to the following and provide a valid cc:

"i understand that although i may cancel my reservation at any time

if i cancel less than 24 hours in advance of my seating time

or do not attend my reservation i will be charged $150 per person."

note: we do not store your credit card information.

it is deleted 24 hours after your reservation time.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Tonight I'm planning to go to Momofuku Ko for my fourth visit. I'm not the record holder -- apparently there's a guy who has been nine times -- but one of the cooks told me that there are only about 20 people who have been more than once. So, I figured I'd try to summarize the ways in which I've been able to get reservations.

In the beginning, it was easy enough to get reservations. All you had to do was be online at exactly 10am and be reasonably diligent and decisive about clicking on an opening. This didn't work every single day, but if you did it a few days in a row you'd get a spot. That was when only Momofuku regulars, online foodies (admittedly a large population already) and restaurant reviewers (who for dramatic effect exaggerated the difficulty of getting reservations at the time) were competing for the, by my calculation, 12 reservations per evening (2 sittings, each consisting of 1x4-top, 3x2-tops and 1x1-top).

Then a huge wave of publicity hit and things got much more competitive. A few weeks ago the reservations situation seemed hopeless. I was failing every day for days on end. So I had two choices: give up or up my game. I implemented a number of strategies, all of which have been effective. I've made something like 8 reservations now (most of which I had to cancel because of scheduling conflicts) and as you may have noticed I've posted about several other opportunities that I haven't used for myself. So these strategies all work, I promise. In addition, these are all above-board strategies. I haven't engaged the help of a computer programmer to develop the Momofuku Ko equivalent of the Auction Sniper service, nor have I relied on scripts or macros (though I have done some limited experiments).

First, there's the brute force approach to the 10am situation. It's possible to improve your chances a lot by doing a few simple things. One thing to bear in mind is that the number of 4-tops is very limited yet those reservations are in high demand. I've never succeeded at getting a 4-top at 10am. The 1-tops, while there are fewer of them than 2-tops, seem to be in the least demand -- those aren't so hard to get. The 2-tops are a decent bet because there are so many.

You need to decide in advance whether you're going for a 1- or 2-top. Because when the choice comes up at 10am, if you take even half a second to think about it, you'll miss the boat. The way the system works is you log on a little before 10am and it says you have to wait until 10am. You can keep refreshing that screen and it will tell you the time on the Ko system clock. At 9:59:59 you should refresh and then get your cursor to approximately where the dropdown menu for number of seats will appear. Choose 1 or 2 immediately -- you've already decided in advance which you'll pursue.

As soon as you make that selection get your cursor over to the right a bit because that's where the green checks will appear. There may be a delay here because the system gets hammered. Sometimes the delay will be so long that when the next screen comes up there are no green checks left. But most of the time green checks will show up. Click one immediately. Again, don't think about the time or anything. Just click the one closest to your cursor and hope for the best.

If you're lucky, the next screen will be a confirmation screen and you'll be all set. If you're not lucky, it will say someone just grabbed your spot. If you're really unlucky you'll get the confirmation screen but the system will hang up on you and you won't actually be allowed to confirm.

Now, even assuming you don't get a reservation at 10am, don't give up. Because there often seem to be one or two super-unlucky people out there who lose their reservations at the confirmation stage. That means that on many days at almost exactly 10:01am (because the confirmation screen stays up for 60 seconds before sending the reservation back into the pool) a couple of green checks will show up. Keep refreshing in the seconds leading up to and immediately after 10:01am. Jump on a green check if you see one. Most people will have given up by now so you have less competition. But you still have competition so be decisive. Also some people will now back out on account of the credit card challenge and others will cancel reservations now that they have new ones, so keep at it for another minute or two. You may see another check.

The other main strategy is to look for cancellations throughout the day. These pop up all the time seemingly at random, but around midnight seems to be a relatively fertile time. There used to be day-of cancellations but these are going to be a thing of the past now that Ko has implemented a credit-card guarantee and $150 no-show penalty (or at least the threat thereof). I imagine that now, with a 24 hour cancellation notice requirement, there will start being late afternoon cancellations for the following day each day. So I'd suggest looking for those.

Finally, although this has never happened to me, I have been told repeatedly by Ko's cooks that seats left empty due to no-shows and late cancellations are filled by offering them to customers at Noodle Bar and Ssam Bar. The aforementioned guy who had been to Ko nine times has, I was told, picked up several of his meals just by being at one of the other Momofukus. So if you're at the Momofukus a lot anyway, I suggest you mention to a manager that you're interested in a Ko cancellation if one comes along. But the credit card policy will make this a less common occurrence, I bet.

I think that's all I have for now. Good luck.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Yeah, like I said, with the new 24-hour notice requirement the likelihood is that late afternoon most days we'll see cancellations for the following day. Sunday 8:30pm for 1 is still available.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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