let’s talk about cell phones in restaurants

food tech (1024x683)

Last summer my oldest uncle, my mom’s big brother and the last of his siblings, died at the ripe old age of 102. Imagine the changes he saw in the world over the course of his lifetime. The mass production of the automobile, invention of radio broadcasting and then television broadcasting, widespread use of the telephone in households, computers of any sort and then personal computers, and now cell phones (one of which he wore on his hip until the day he died). Such remarkable technological growth. And with each invention a fair amount of grimacing and fear and anger about the changes that new technology wrought. In 1865 the UK Parliament regulated automobile speeds to 4 mph and required a man to walk ahead of the auto waving a red flag. When the telephone became commonplace, people worried that telephone operators would listen in on their conversations (they did). And when computers moved into our homes we worried that strangers would hack in to our personal lives (they do). Now we carry our computers in our pockets but we call them phones. They are also cameras. And credit cards. And game consoles. And there is more grimacing and fear and anger.

Last week I ran across this article about complaints in restaurants. The bottom line is customers are so busy with their phones that they take longer to order and eat their meals, slowing the entire dining experience. Then they complain about the quality of the food (that has sat in front of them getting cold while they photograph it for their yelp review), the length of time it takes to get their server’s attention (while he/she is helping the diners at the next table connect to wifi), the length of time it takes to be seated (because the whole process has slowed). So what to do?

Some restaurants ban cell phones. I suppose that’s an option and will work about as well as ‘disconnect day’ or whatever they called it a week or so ago. In so doing we accept that the devices are in control and try to manage their devilish power over us. Because that worked really well with the automobile, the telephone, the radio and the television. And certainly the personal computer. Or we can decide that we are in charge and figure out how to make a place in our world for technology that allows its benefits and minimizes its deficits.

This is something we try to wrap our heads around in our household as our children are learning to face their world in ways so different from ours. They don’t use the phone to talk, they use it to text. They don’t write letters, they post on Instagram or Facebook or SnapChat. They don’t write period….they type. So we can be the parents that try to drag our children back to the world that we grew up in (was it really so much better?), or we can embrace the changes and guide our children to a productive and balanced future that includes technology that we are still learning. Honestly, is there a choice here? Has anyone ever successfully turned back time (and don’t give me the Amish example….I’ve already thought of that and I think it is a special case)? And do we really want to?

So back to the world at large, I think that we are in need of some big design thinking here, and it would be my suggestion to include people under 21 in the conversation. This is their world and they understand things that we haven’t even thought of yet. Let them help to guide us. We need to move restaurants into the 21st century and that doesn’t mean we ban technology. Complain all you will about your yelp ratings, people photographing their food, texting rather than reading the menu. And alienate both your current and future customers. Those photos of your food? That’s free advertising. Those complaints on yelp? Those are opportunities to improve. Slower turn times? Maybe this is an opportunity to sell more food and drink. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, and haven’t even thought of all of the questions. But I think it’s time to begin a productive conversation here. Don’t you?

Keep in touch,

3 replies
  1. Don says:

    Just as restaurants developed Smoking and Non-Smoking sections, introducing Cellphone-free Dining Zones is a viable option for those who are annoyed by cellphone usage is restaurants. When you go to the theater, prior to the start of the show, they make a request that cellphones be silenced. Can’t restaurants develop a similar practice…especially the 5-star ones?

  2. Alan Irvine says:

    We are embracing cellphones by creating loyalty programs based on the smartphone. The guest controls the incentives, redemptions and choices. Now the only people who make a lot of noise on their cell phones are our older clientele, who are the only ones on there. Most business people want privacy so they walk away to find a quiet spot, and the young people, as you said, only text.

  3. Leslie says:

    If it’s just noise at issue this is definitely a potential solution. But I think the issues are much bigger (slower turn times, etc). I’d love to hear from restaurateurs about what they are doing that benefits both the business and the customer…

Comments are closed.