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What Exactly Happened on May 10, 2012?


Our intrepid investigative investor follows a clue that could be related to Facebook, Instagram, or George Clooney. While the world may never know, the exercise is very entertaining.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL Over the weekend, a story in the New York Post ran that was so seemingly insignificant that I almost overlooked it. The Post's Annie Karni bylines an item about two unidentified diners who visited "21," the famous West 52nd Street eatery, and ordered not one, but two bottles of Petrus 1982 at the princely sum of $8,320. Per bottle. Okay, I thought, another day at the office for a couple of investment bankers. Until I saw the graphic accompanying the piece, an image of the bill, bearing two prominent bold and black redacts (which I immediately surmised as expurgations referencing the cardholder's name and account number).

My initial reaction was a bit of pity for the "21" I used to know, which -- when that wine was first laid down -- wouldn't have dreamed of telling tales out of school in such a manner. So I theorized to myself that the economy must be so horrible that places like that are turning to flacks and hacks to drum up business. No, I did not shed any tears.

But then I did a double take because two other things on that bill jump out at me. One, the date on it reads May 10. Why would the Post run a story on August 26 about an event that occurred more than three months prior? The copy also refers to "a weeknight supper this summer," [emphasis added] and that doesn't jibe with May 10, either.

But it was the second thing I noticed that really got my full attention. The tip: $400.

Four hundred dollars?

Immediately assuming "911 emergency Microsoft Excel dispatch mode" (which includes, I might add, assembling copious supplies of fresh notepaper and ball-point pens in neat respective piles), I booted up a blank spreadsheet and started entering the data.

Here's the image as it is depicted in the Post:

Here's my spreadsheet:

While the Post duly notes that the restaurant was kind enough to throw in a couple of cookies "for the big spenders" [emphasis added] gratis, the article make no mention at all that the $400 tip measured as a function of the pretax food and wine charges of $16,841.50 is just 2.38%. Measured as a function of the total charges including the tax of -- hold your breath -- $1,494.68, the $400 tip is 2.18%. "Big spenders"?

The tax of $1,494.68 amounts to 8.87% of the pretax and pre-gratuity food/wine subtotal, or more than 3.7 times the allocation for the wait staff. Some diners just double the tax to compute the tip; in this case, we would be talking just shy of $3,000, or 17%-18% on the food and wine price -- 7.5 times $400.

What Was Going On May 10?

I Googled the above subhead. My curiosity just couldn't be contained. I'm an inveterate fan of the eponymous detective on Columbo, and I just had to get to the bottom of it. If the "business associates" who the Post reports ran up this tab are indeed investment bankers, how could they be such skinflints?

There isn't anything porcine about their food consumption. Two orders of fish between them. A salad each. One side of mushrooms. Two desserts. Water. The food charges of $201.50 are a splintery 1% of the grand total. The nigh seventeen grand on the wine is obviously the big number.

And the closing time stamp on the bill of roughly ten o'clock, presumably about the time they left the restaurant, isn't egregiously late, either.

So I picture two persons with reasonable hours, who have dietary habits that conform to having a good time at a famous place. But they are also health-conscious and not overdoing it, while probably in good shape. Perhaps they grabbed a bite after a workout at the gym. But those fellows wouldn't treat the wait staff shabbily -- that's worse form than business cards printed on flimsy, cut-rate paper stock! They wouldn't stiff the help out of $2,600!

Here's what my Google search turned up for May 10:
  • This was about a month ahead of the Facebook (FB) offering -- nerdy Californians in town?
  • Obama had just modified his stance on gay marriage.
  • He did that just in time to pick up $15 million at George Clooney's place.
  • Fotis Kouvelis was doing his darnedest to form a new coalition in Greece.
  • Stock volatility had jumped 6.7% over the previous month as measured by the VIX (^VIX).
  • Romney apologized for bullying a gay guy in prep school.
  • Dick Lugar lost his primary.
  • 40,000 police officers were protesting budget cuts in the UK.
  • Warhol's "Double Elvis" fetched $37 million.
  • Facebook disclosed substantial mobile-technology problems, which led to a pre-offering disquiet.
All interesting and diverting, of course, but no "smoking gun" anywhere near as compelling as Detective Columbo figuring out that a gentleman caller must have murdered a naked woman and then mannishly put her clothes back on after she died because the tag on the panties was on the wrong side.

And then I ran across this item regarding the employee stock windfall at Facebook:

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg won't be the only one collecting billions from Facebook's initial public offering: Uncle Sam and the state of California are also poised to cash in big.

Tax collectors will be taking a giant bite out of the paper millions that thousands of Facebook employees will soon gain. The average tax hit: $1.1 million per employee.

That's when it occurred to me to look up the Instagram deal.

Sure enough, that little billion-dollar-baby was announced on April 9, which was one month and one day prior to the mysterious "21" supper.

A little more digging and I found a Washington Post blog noting:

[A] controversial new Tumblr is a collection of snapshots from the photo-sharing site that depicts the children of wealth and privilege -- summering in the Hamptons, lounging on yachts and posing by their luxury cars.

One does a back-flip out of a helicopter near St. Tropez. Others snap pictures of their restaurant bills -- allegedly paying thousands of dollars for lobster, champagne, and high-end liquor.

In the warm patina of the Instagram, the youngsters appear to be living over-the-top lifestyles -- and enjoying every moment.

"Our everyday is better than your best day," reads one caption, a bit tauntingly. And, "Do you have a horse in your backyard? Didn't think so."

All in reference to another blog, which makes a career out of such subjects?

Here is a portion of that blog's entry for "Aug. 13," a very interesting graphic depicting a bill at the Nikki Beach St. Tropez location.

Nothing conclusive in any of the above, of course -- it is for strictly amusement value, and amusing it is. After all, lots of people have exorbitant tastes in food and wine. And we don't see the service compris portion here (don't forget that 108 large tab above is in euros, by the way) because it's, well, service compris. I'm happy when I can cover just that Spartan $201.50 "21" food tab. And I'd leave an adequate tip, too.
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