Are iPhones, social media, selfies and other societal trends fucking up the restaurant business?

cellrestaurant

My friend Rhonda Crosson, who left a career as a biochemist in Michigan to become a baker in the big apple, recently shared the following from Craigslist NYC. Personally, I suspect it’s fiction, but, as it raises a number of interesting issues concerning how personal technology is impacting the restaurant business, I thought that I’d share it here, in hopes that it might lead to an interesting conversation. [note: I’ve edited a bit for grammar.]

Busy NYC Restaurant Solves Major Mystery by Reviewing Old Surveillance:

We are a popular restaurant for both locals and tourists alike. Having been in business for many years we noticed that, although the number of customers we serve on a daily basis is almost the same today as it was 10 years ago, the service just seems super slow, even though we added a lot more staff and cut back on the menu items.

On review sites, one of the most common complaints against us, and many restaurants in the area, is that the service is slow, or that the wait for a table is a bit long.

We decided to hire a firm to help us solve this mystery, and, naturally, the first thing they blamed it on was our employees. We were told they needed more training, and that maybe the kitchen staff just wasn’t up to the task of serving that many customers.

Like most restaurants in NYC, we have a surveillance system. Unlike today, where it’s a digital system, 10 years ago we used special high-capacity tapes to record all the activity. At any given time we had 4 special Sony systems recording multiple cameras. And we would store the footage for 90 days just in case we needed it for something.

The firm we hired suggested that we locate some of the older tapes and analyze how the staff behaved 10 years ago versus how they behave now. We went down to our storage room, but we couldn’t find any tapes at all.

We did find the recording devices, though, and, luckily for us, each device had 1 tape in it that we simply never removed when we upgraded to the digital system.

The date stamp on the old footage was Thursday, July 1, 2004. The restaurant was real busy that day. We loaded up the footage on a large monitor, and, next to it, on a separate monitor, we loaded up the footage of Thursday, July 3, 2014. The number of customers we served that day was only a bit more than 10 years prior.

I will quickly outline the findings. We carefully looked at over 45 transactions in order to determine the data below:

2004:

Customers walk in.

They get seated and are given menus. Out of 45 customers, 3 request to be seated elsewhere.

Customers on average spend 8 minutes before closing the menu to show they are ready to order.

Waiters show up almost instantly to take the order.

Food starts getting delivered within 6 minutes… Obviously the more complex items take way longer.

Out of 45 customers, 2 sent items back that, we assume, where too cold. (Given they were not steaks, we assume the customer just wanted the items heated up more.)

Waiters keep an eye out for their tables so they can respond quickly if their customers need anything.

When customers are done, checks are delivered, and, within 5 minutes, they leave.

Average time from start to finish: 1:05.

2014:

Customers walk in.

Customers get seated and are given menus. Out of 45 customers, 18 requested to be seated elsewhere.

Before even opening the menu they take their phones out. Some are taking photos, while others are simply doing something else on their phone. (We have no clue what they’re doing, as we don’t monitor customer WIFI activity.)

7 out of the 45 customers had waiters come over right away, showing them something on their phones. On average, these exchanges took 5 minutes of the waiter’s time. Given this is recent footage, we asked the waiters about this and they explained those customers had a problem connecting to the WIFI and demanded help.

Finally the waiters are walking over to the table to see what the customers would like to order. The majority have not even opened the menu and ask the waiter to wait a bit.

Customer opens the menu, places their hands holding their phones on top of it and continue doing whatever on their phone.

Waiter returns to see if they are ready to order or have any questions. The customer asks for more time.

Finally they are ready to order.

Total average time from when the customer was seated until they placed their order 21 minutes.

Food starts getting delivered within 6 minutes, obviously the more complex items take way longer.

26 out of 45 customers spend an average of 3 minutes taking photos of the food.

14 out of 45 customers take pictures of each other with the food in front of them or as they are eating the food. This takes on average another 4 minutes as they must review and sometimes retake the photo.

9 out of 45 customers sent their food back to reheat. Obviously if they didn’t pause to do whatever on their phone the food wouldn’t have gotten cold.

27 out of 45 customers asked their waiter to take a group photo. 14 of those requested the waiter retake the photo as they were not pleased with the first photo. On average this entire process between the chit chatting and reviewing the photo taken added another 5 minutes and obviously caused the waiter not to be able to take care of other tables he/she was serving.

Given in most cases the customers are constantly busy on their phones it took an average of 20 minutes more from when they were done eating until they requested a check. Furthermore once the check was delivered it took 15 minutes longer than 10 years ago for them to pay and leave.

8 out of 45 customers bumped into other customers or in one case a waiter (texting while walking) as they were either walking in or out of the restaurant.

Average time from start to finish: 1:55.

We are grateful for everyone who comes into our restaurant, after all there are so many choices out there. But can you please be a bit more considerate?

Like I said, I find the whole thing a bit suspect. Not only do the numbers sound inflated, even by NYC standards, but the whole thing just seems a little too perfect. More importantly, though, I don’t know that I trust the science. How, for instance, did they choose these 45 individuals in each cohort that they focused on? And how many of these 45 were in groups with others being studied? For instance, if there was a group of 10, and all of them were among the 45 observed in 2014, then it would be relatively easy to see how they could have gotten to the “27 out of 45 customers asked their waiter to take a group photo” number. If, however, these 45 people were all in different groups, that would indicate something completely different.

For the purposes of our discussion, I don’t think it really matters, though. Whether or not the person who posted this really has data indicating that evolving consumer behavior is what’s driving wait times, etc, I think we can probably assume that personal technologies, the advent of the selfie, and the rapid proliferation of food review sites, are changing the restaurant landscape. And it’s probably fair to assume that these trends would probably be felt more at a New York restaurant that’s popular with tourists, than, say, in Ypsilanti.

I mean, I know that this kind of thing is increasingly an issue in more prosperous areas, where there’s more of a developed “foodie” scene. I have a friend in Austin, for instance, who travels with a portable lighting setup that she uses to photograph the meals she writes about on Yelp. While I’ve yet to see anything that intense happen here in Ypsi-Arbor, I suspect it’s on the horizon.

So, while the narrative above reads as somewhat extreme, I suspect it hints at trends that restauranteurs need to be aware of.

For what it’s worth, I suspect there’s also an up-side, in that people who own restaurants now have more of an insight as to how their customers are thinking. Also, I wouldn’t imagine that it hurts to have people sharing images of your food, etc. The question is, does the good outweigh the bad?

As someone who has thought for years of opening a restaurant of his own, I find all of this incredibly interesting… Can you still make money in an environment, I wonder, where tables are harder to flip, and people are spending more time on their phones than they are eating and drinking?

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14 Comments

  1. Rhonda
    Posted July 14, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Whether it’s true or not isn’t the heart of the issue for me. As someone who produces food for a living, one nice/rewarding part of the work has always been people connecting over your products and engaging with each other. Taking time out of the day to be present and enjoy an experience. Now- too often- people (at least here in NYC) are becoming disconnected with their dining companions, or worse, photographing their food, asking servers to photograph it with them giving peace signs- then it is absolutely true that they send it to be reheated. I swear. And often these people snapping away, with flash in dimly lit romantic restos, are ruining the experience for other diners around them.

  2. Posted July 14, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    The number of customers we served that day was only a bit more than 10 years prior.

    I don’t get this part. If they have the same number of customers in the course of the day, what are the new costs to the restaurant of people lingering at their tables? I do see how all that requires more server time per table, from multiple back-and-forths, and maybe the fact that they can double their time-at-table with the same number of daily customers suggests they filled previously empty table with lingering groups, rather than with new customers, missing some opportunities for growth? I’d be curious what the average check per table and per person is.

    I also wonder what their reaction would have been if they found that patrons these days were so engrossed in deep philosophical and political discussions that they just couldn’t vacate the tables quickly. If the restaurant had somehow become a hotbed of attachment parenting culture, and patrons were swapping tips on babywearing, breastfeeding, and co-sleeping, would the owners be taking to the web with complaints of “seriously, just scarf down your food, give your kids formula and disposable diapers like normal 1960s families, and get out of the place, kthxbye”? Or is this specifically about smartphone shaming?

    If patrons were doing the crossword in their newspaper, or sharing a hardcopy Sunday New York Times over brunch, would this have the same tone? Or is it only if everybody’s reading articles together on their tablets?

  3. Lynne
    Posted July 14, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    My bet is that this is just some fake thing someone who hates smartphones wrote up. People always resist cultural change and our technology in general facilitates such change. I imagine that sometime after the printing press was invented some restauranteur lamented about how reading at the table was going to ruin the experience forever.

    So what if people want to take pictures of their food? I’ve never really understood the issues people have with this. I rarely do it myself because most of the restaurant food I am served doesn’t merit a photograph but I can’t say that I haven’t ever taken a picture of my food. What sometimes puzzles me too is how often restaurant staff get annoyed with this as it clearly is a form of appreciation for the presentation of the meal.

  4. anonymous
    Posted July 14, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    I refuse to believe there’s a human on earth who would send something back for reheating after taking photos of it.

  5. jesse
    Posted July 14, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I don’t think these numbers are anywhere close to normal… I eat out all the time and I rarely see people take pictures of their food, but at this restaurant they are claiming over 1/2 the customers are taking 3 minute photo shoots with their food. Also, based on personal experience when I have noticed someone taking a picture to post on social media, the process is about 30 seconds and it is either somewhere nice or somewhere new. Having said that, I assume that this is fine dining IF most of the parameters here are quasi correct; 6 min the food is being delivered indicates soups and salads, ANY amount of customers that want group photos (think Balthazaar or Gramercy) in your place of biz indicate destination location, 1/2 the customers are photographing the food and if we can say that each pic takes 30 seconds or a review and a pic take a minute there were several courses coming out to take up 3 minutes of time on social media. So, if this is a fine dining destination restaurant and 20% of the customers are returning their food for some reason… Then they just aren’t keeping up with the customer demands for food quality. In 2004 they probably opened and were serving up awesome food and by 2004 standards they still are… but 10 years later they are likely bringing in tons of people based on their previous accolades and aren’t living up to the new competition in 2014 like Narcissa or Gato. Whatever problems they are facing 10 years later are the same problems all the new restaurants in their demographic face as well and if they are losing review points based on social behavior then everyone else is also losing review points for the same reason, but clearly there are still highly reviewed places in NYC… So, in the end it doesn’t really matter what the decline of their ratings is caused by if it isn’t hurting every other restaurant’s reviews equally, it just means they aren’t evolving. And, if it is hurting every other businesses equally then in comparison to the market they would still be maintaining position regardless, making this a moot point.

  6. Mr. X
    Posted July 14, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    We need to start doing the same thing for urinals and toilets at nice restaurants, tying them up as we photograph them, write about them, etc.

  7. jcp2
    Posted July 14, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    You want to make money as a food establishment? You can charge a lot and compete at the high end. You can reduce labor and rent by operating as a food truck or food cart. You can reduce labor by ordering through a tablet. Heck, maybe you can take advantage of the smartphone by using some sort of app for customer ordering.

  8. John Galt
    Posted July 14, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    This is what happens when religion dies in a country.

  9. Taco Farts
    Posted July 14, 2014 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    This is fake.

  10. Posted July 14, 2014 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    There is something to be said for how much people get into their phones. I saw a movie today and left the theater for the little teacherPatti room. The woman in front of me was so engrossed on her Smart Phone that I probably could have punched her in the back of the head and taken off with her purse if I wanted to. I am a naturally quick walker (and I had to pee) and so I had to slow myself down and finally just sort of walked around her. She jumped about a foot and I was like, “I’m sorry” which why in the hell was I apologizing but the point is…people are so into those things. Hell, at my friend’s viewing yesterday, people were on the phones more than they were interacting. I guess I’m just glad no one took a “selfie” with his body.

  11. kjc
    Posted July 14, 2014 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    Probably just about smartphone shaming. Works for me.

  12. Posted July 15, 2014 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    I think it’s fake, but rather than blaming customers for business problems, this restaurant would do well to adapt and innovate.

    This is as bad as the stupid discussions over mp3s that went on back in the early 00’s. Every innovation has it’s costs. Either adapt or die.

  13. maryd
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    At a restaurant in Denver they took my number and texted me when the table was ready…they also put a drink in my hand while I waited…or I could have continued along the road shopping while I waited. Seems like they enhanced my experience. And in the past people at breakfast would open up the Sunday paper to read with breakfast…seems a like comparison. When John and I eat out we do bring out our phones, but it is a shared experience rich with sharing and passing phones back and forth.

  14. Bob
    Posted July 16, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Peter Larson hates record stores.

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