Are Smartphones Ruining the Restaurant Experience?

Commentary about business and finance.
July 16 2014 3:18 PM

Are Smartphones Ruining the Restaurant Experience?

A viral Craigslist post says yes. But actual restaurant workers aren’t so sure.

Did you need three minutes to take this photo?.
Did you need three minutes to take this photo?

Photo courtesy Chris Waits/Flickr

Your smartphone is the scourge of restaurants. Customers snapping photos of food and dawdling on Facebook at meals have slowed down table service by an hour over the last 10 years, as an anonymous post on Craigslist’s “rants & raves” section recently alleged. The writer claimed that his restaurant, located in Manhattan’s Midtown East and serving “both locals and tourists,” had studied security footage from July 2004 and compared with a tape of a recent Thursday this month. The takeaway: Today’s technologically distracted diners take longer to order, longer to eat, and longer to pay—and then they blame the restaurant for the wait! “We are grateful for everyone who comes into our restaurant,” the aggrieved restaurateur wrote, “but can you please be a bit more considerate?”

Alison Griswold Alison Griswold

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.

In almost no time, the indignant and now deleted Craigslist screed set the Internet alight. A post on Distractify transcribing the entire complaint quickly racked up more than 750,000 shares and 2,600 comments. “Smartphone use in restaurants prompts Craigslist rant,” announced the BBC. “Cell phones slowing down service in restaurants. Wait times have doubled because customers are too busy with their screens,” blared the Daily Mail. “Why you should (really, seriously, permanently) stop using your smartphone at dinner,” proclaimed the Washington Post.

Tempting as it can be to take anonymous, unsubstantiated Craigslist rants at face value, we decided to do a little digging on this one. Let’s take a closer look at some of the specific claims made by the post about customers in 2014:

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.
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Three minutes to take photos of food? That’s a long time to take a casual snapshot or two. So is four minutes to take and review additional photos with friends, all while a presumably hot and delicious meal is sitting in front of you. “I think this is clearly a fake—the whole scenario is made up,” says Luke O’Neil, a food industry writer for publications including Slate who spent more than 10 years working in the restaurant business. “It seems like one of these things that’s designed to make a point.”

Smartphones have undoubtedly become a hot-button issue for the restaurant world in recent years. Some chefs have publicly decried phone pics and social media for ruining the dining experience, while others have banned the use of devices in their dining areas altogether. But is cellphone use really causing massive disruptions to restaurant service?

“I haven’t noticed that,” says Patrick Duxbury, general manager at TAO Downtown in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “We are a very busy restaurant—we service well over 600, 700, 800 diners a night—and I don’t necessarily think we’d be able to do that if smartphones were in our way.” As a common venue for celebratory dinners, birthdays, and bachelorette parties, TAO Downtown does take lot of photos, Duxbury says, but that’s “absolutely not” bad for the restaurant. “Those pictures go up on social media, some of them instantly on Instagram and Facebook, and it gets us out there,” he says.

Other chefs, waiters, and restaurateurs echo this sentiment. John Kapetanos, owner of Ethos in Manhattan’s Midtown East—the same neighborhood as the anonymous Craigslist poster—says maybe 10 percent of his customers ask the waiter to take a group photo; it’s a favor that takes less than a minute and doesn’t slow down service. Over the 12 years Ethos has been in business, Kapetanos says cellphones have added maybe five to 10 minutes to the average table time, but that he doesn’t mind as long as diners at one table aren’t bothering those at another. Jean-Marte, a waiter at a French restaurant in Midtown who declined to give his last name, concurs that taking photos of customers doesn’t slow his stride. He adds that smartphones can even be quite helpful when dealing with foreign tourists who don’t understand the menu. “It’s easier for them to go on the website or on Yelp, and they can show you a picture and say, ‘This is what I want,’ ” he explains.

In late 2012, food and restaurant consulting firm Technomic conducted a study of how consumers were integrating their phones into the dining experience. Roughly 30 percent admitted to taking photos of their food, while 9 percent said they had paid through mobile. “There’s no doubt that consumers are taking time to use their mobile devices in restaurants,” says Mary Chapman, director of product innovation at Technomic. “I anecdotally have not seen it impact timing, and really, if someone is taking pictures of your food and posting it, and your food is delicious-looking, it can only be good for your restaurant.”

Smartphones, in other words, might be a bit annoying, but on the whole restaurants agree that they’re more of a boon to business than a hindrance—and certainly not the impediment the Craigslist post made them out to be. “It’s just part of our lives now,” says Michael Scelfo, chef and owner of the recently opened Alden & Harlow in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Back in the old days, if you wanted to pay with your credit card, someone had to physically go and carbon-copy it and write information on it. Now they can swipe it on their phone tableside. How much time does that save?”

Then again, the Craigslist post clearly hit a nerve with restaurant-goers and restaurant workers alike, perhaps tapping into a shared fear that the more time we spend with our smartphones, the less we make for each other. Even if our phones aren’t slowing down service, who really wants to be sitting at a table full of people who are too busy Instagramming their food and checking their Twitter feeds to have a conversation? That’s a reflection on us, rather than the restaurant. But it might just make people grumpy enough to blame the staff.

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