Dining Etiquette in a Digital Age
Whether restaurants shy away from or embrace the plugged-in generation, finding a way to stay ahead of the technological curve remains a crucial task for operators.
In this advanced digital age, rules of etiquette still apply in the restaurant setting, even if they do seem to change as quickly as the latest smartphone craze.
Exactly what those codes of etiquette are varies from establishment to establishment, however. Some restaurateurs care very much that their patrons appear to have abandoned polite dinner conversation altogether in favor of loudly talking into their cellphones.
For instance, at the Green Russell in Denver, Colorado, owner and designer Jacqueline Bonanno wanted a no-cellphone policy from the get-go. When she and beverage director Adam Hodak were in the process of outfitting this self-proclaimed “chef-driven cocktail joint,” they visited a secondhand restaurant store and found an old phone booth. “We thought it was perfect for the vibe we were going for,” Bonanno says. “When Green Russell first opened, whenever we saw someone using their phone we would kindly ask them to use our phone booth. Now, a couple years later, people really appreciate the no-phone policy. They understand that Green Russell is a place to grab some cocktails and enjoy the company of others. For the most part, people don’t use their cellphone or it’s discreet enough where we don’t ask them to use the phone booth.”
Likewise, Griz Dwight of GrizForm Design Architects installed a phone booth in the Founding Farmers restaurant in Tysons, Virginia. This functional design element allows guests to make phone calls in private, without disturbing those around them.
Frequenters of full-service restaurants, including the syndicated advice columnist Amy Alkon, author of Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck, fully approve of this addition to a restaurant’s layout. She notes that “the atmosphere is part of the dining experience, and no patron has a right to change that for other patrons.” In her opinion, those “fine-dining atmosphere-eaters” include “glowing screens, ringing phones, and flash photos.”
Indeed, she makes a noteworthy point when she says that “few people go to fine restaurants just for the food. The atmosphere is an essential part of the experience, with the dimmed lights, elegant floral arrangements, and waiters speaking in hushed tones instead of hollering across the place, diner-style, ‘Yo, put a rush on that partridge confit!’”
She continues, “In a dimly lit restaurant, brightly lit phone screens, iPads, and laptop screens steal attention away from guests’ companions and meal. Should you be tempted to send, oh, maybe just 26 or 30 emails, consider that there’s probably a reason restaurants advertise ‘fine dining’ instead of ‘fine data entry.’ … It also seems ill-advised to annoy other patrons around you who not only have been drinking but may just have been given sharpened steak knives.”
Restricting cell usage is one reason why restaurants all over the world, from the Corner Cafe in Annapolis, Maryland, to Svarta Kaffid in Reykjavik, Iceland, are strategically placing signage with messages like “We do not have Wi-Fi. Talk to each other; pretend it’s 1995.”
Bucato in Culver City, California, was even more emphatic on its written materials: “It is our intention that you enjoy your time with us, savoring both your meal and your company. We kindly ask that you refrain from using your mobile device within the dining area. All photography within Bucato is politely discouraged. Thank you.” Although Bucato served its last meal in September, the closure was more likely due to the loss of the restaurant’s original chef, Evan Funke, than its policy on electronic devices.
Also in Los Angeles, popular Trois Mec partners Ludo Lefebvre, Jon Shook, and Vinny Dotolo insist flash photography is not allowed and ask that guests keep cellphones and cameras off the table during the meal.
As for documenting a meal on the East Coast, the 18-seat Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare has a very strict and well-publicized no-photo policy, mostly in order to maintain its air of mystery. Similarly, the famously cranky chef David Chang requests that guests refrain from flash photography in Momofuku as well as in his other restaurants. He sometimes adds further directives on the restaurants’ websites, noting among the FAQs: “We find that even non-flash photography of the food and our staff is distracting to our chefs and guests. We ask that you respect the experience of the other guests.”
Other operators, however, have found incentives work better to discourage diners from yapping, clicking, and flashing: At Abu Ghosh, just outside Jerusalem, Israel, owner Jawdat Ibrahim offers an enormously generous 50 percent off the diner’s bill if the guest relinquishes his mobile device upon entering.
Similarly, Bedivere Eatery & Tavern in Beirut, Lebanon, and Sneaky’s Chicken in Sioux City, Iowa, both deduct 10 percent. And the now-defunct Eva in Los Angeles, which may have launched the trend in America, garnered a lot of publicity for discounting 5 percent off of the bill for diners who abstained from digital devices. (As with Bucato, its closure had nothing to do with its cellphone policy.)
On the other hand, some restaurateurs and chefs have found that this new digital age includes embracing social media and all the hoopla that comes with it.
In Rye, New York, for example, Rosemary and Vine installed dual plugs, with an electric cord outlet as well as a USB outlet. Now, customers can extend their laptop batteries along with their welcome, and no one is hurrying to kick them out the door. After all, there’s always another glass of wine to be ordered, or a dessert to be nibbled.
Similarly, at Miami’s recently launched Beaker & Gray, chef/owner Brian Nasajon and bar manager/owner Ben Potts paid homage to the industrial era when renovating their space, a former ice factory. But while the design includes exposed beams and refined natural materials, they wanted to keep up with the technologies of the 21st century so they also installed cellphone-charging stations at the 13-seat bar. “The idea is to provide the guests with a service,” Nasajon says. “Guests can enjoy a bite and drink while recharging.”
Even a city known for Southern charm and etiquette is seeing the dawn of a new code of conduct, as Wesley Janssen, marketing manager for Dickie Brennan & Company in New Orleans, observes: “Cellphone use is more and more prevalent at all of our restaurants, and who are we to buck the trend? If guests feel strongly enough to take the time to photograph and share our cuisine with their friends and family, we’re honored. Also, it’s a great way for us to know which dishes are resonating with customers, and that helps us with our own social media campaigns.”
Indeed, Kate Edwards, culinary management instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education and author of the customer-service book, Hello! And Every Little Thing That Matters, says not only can operators gauge success by being Internet-friendly, they can also mitigate damage: “Harness the power of the Internet and use it for good press, immediate reaction to reviews, and as a positive way to connect with your customers in real time. The Internet offers lightning-fast feedback from your customers; use this immediacy to your advantage and accept the feedback with gratitude or an apology ASAP.”
She points to Empellon Taqueria as a good example of Internet maintenance. The restaurant posts its hashtag at the bottom of the menu, stating that it “strongly discourages the use of cellphones,” unless taking pictures of the food. “It is a fun way to ensure that people will post their photos on Instagram and it keeps [the Empellon Taqueria] brand up to the minute in terms of social media exposure,” Edwards says.
One young entrepreneur, 25-year-old Jolina Li, has come up with a way to assist restaurateurs in that regard. “After hearing countless restaurateurs complain about the difficulties of connecting with their customers, I knew there had to be a better way to help restaurants promote and engage with [diners],” she says.
The daughter of Chinese restaurateurs, she invented BuzzyBooth, a social media photo station. Guests who are waiting for a table can enter the booth and snap away; images are captioned with the restaurant’s brand and posted on social media accounts. It’s an amusing way for guests to pass the time while it also increases the establishment’s presence. The booth itself doesn’t take up much space and costs $2,500, less expensive than the typical cost of running an ad.
In the end, BuzzyBooth “increases sales and decreases marketing costs,” Li says, a claim that TOA (Taste of Asia) Asian Fusion in Huntington Village on Long Island, New York, enthusiastically backs up. Although the restaurant had only been open for two months, it had begun test-marketing the booth and already seen an increase in sales of $3,250. Additionally, it gained 116 new customers by using the social media tool to promote its grand opening, collect email addresses for future marketing, and offer a 5 percent discount on the bill for customers who shared their brand-captioned photos from the restaurant via their social media accounts.
Allowing customers to employ devices—whether they’re supplied by the restaurant or the individual—is especially important if the restaurant itself is using technology, like when servers are taking orders on iPads or using applications such as TouchBistro, an iPad point-of-sale app that integrates with mobile payment systems such as PayPal, OpenTable Payments, and Apple Pay and that enables guests to settle bills tableside. Alex Barrotti, CEO of TouchBistro, says, “More and more restaurants, including upscale establishments, are using Wi-Fi to offer a more efficient service model for their customers.” It only makes sense, he continues, that they also “embrace open WiFi access for their customers. We live in a digital age where consumers are increasingly dependent on staying connected, and there’s no reason this expectation should be excluded from the dining experience.”
Aside from ideological issues, the only real problems arise when operators don’t communicate their expectations about the use of technology in their restaurants to guests. When policy becomes a guessing game or if it doesn’t seem reasonable, consumers may become angry. “It is essential that the policy be in alignment with the brand of the company,” Edwards advises. “I have definitely seen companies that draw a hard line for ‘no Wi-Fi; no photos; no calls’ receive some bad press and [negative] reviews because of it.”
However, she also cautions, “If you have a policy, you must enforce it. The manager should be the one to make the policy clear to guests who are being disruptive, whether with phone calls, a loud ringer, or a bright flash.”
Most importantly, perhaps, is to keep any situation that might arise from escalating. While Alkon calls for “muzzling the mobile savage,” Edwards prefers a subtle stance. “Small gestures can be very powerful communicators of a policy,” she says. “Merely gesturing to the bar and inviting people to follow you there so as not to interrupt their conversation is very effective. People don’t want to be called out for being a rule-breaker, so it is important to help them save face in public and show respect for the experience they are having in your business.”