Omar's Hookah Lounge

June 21, 2018

I met Omar working at Microsoft. We had the same start day in 2009 and shared a closet-sized office in Redmond, I think building 18 or 19. Omar was French Canadian, originally from Morocco, and studied mechanical engineering at McGill. In addition to being one of the most intellectually gifted people I've ever met, Omar has great artistic talent, and can dance. He just turned 30 and somehow, is single.

I was one of the first in a wave of ex-Microsoft Seattle to San Francisco transplants. Omar followed in 2013 and ended up working at a startup payroll company. He told this story at my 31st birthday party and I've been laughing since.

I didn't know this, but payroll servicing entails a lot of (financial) risk. Payroll happens via ACH, which means payments can be "taken back" after the fact. Also, servicers usually use a two-step process of (a) taking the money from the company and then (b) paying it to customers, but since this takes 4 days (each step takes two days), Omar's company developed a two-day process where they take money from the company and pay it out to customers simultaneously; it's faster and eases cashflow, but exposes the servicer to a lot of risk. So they care a lot about customer credit profiles.

The running joke was two businesses: one legitimate, the other shady. The legitimate business: Susie's flower shop. Stable address, in business a long time, widely advertised, lots of employees, minimal turnover. Omar's hookah lounge, by way of comparison, moves around, hasn't been open very long, uses all contract labor (no employees), and sells a disreputable product. (It's even run by an immigrant with a Muslim-sounding name.) These businesses became the stock archetypes for risk assessment.

One day, someone got the idea of putting Omar's hookah lounge on Yelp. Maybe they wanted to test how it would affect credit scoring. But that day, Omar's Hookah Lounge sprang into Yelp existence, using Omar's (real) residential address, in his apartment complex. So far, all fun and games.

But then…customers started showing up. The prospects arrived at Omar's building and asked the doorman for directions to the hookah lounge. Confused, the doorman said no such thing exists. "Yes it does, it's right here on Yelp, can't you see?" The doorman called Omar, who confirmed it was all a joke; there was no "Omar's Hookah Lounge".

After this happened a few more times, it became less of a joke to the exasperated doorman, who grew tired of fending off "customers". He complained to building management, who sent Omar a nasty cease and desist, letter, citing the building's non-commercial zoning, and the section of Omar's lease prohibiting commercial activity.

They threatened him with fines and/or lease termination if it kept up.

Omar begged to the coworker who put it up to take it down. They were going to fine him! Only problem, Yelp intentionally makes this difficult because they don't want businesses deleting pages, doubly so ones with as many negative reviews as Omar's hookah lounge— they don't want people "starting over" just because they got a bad start. They pleaded their case but got nowhere with Yelp customer service!

Omar eventually moved to a different building. I'm not sure whether they eventually got the listing taken down, or left it as a "present" to the next lessee.

But you should definitely think twice about your dealings with that Omar, and his shady hookah lounge.