Management

Disconnected: How Restaurateurs Deal with Cell Phones in Restaurants

March 23, 2017 • 8 min read
Julien Perry

Julien Perry

Seattle Correspondent

You know that sinking, panicky feeling when you’re out-and-about and suddenly realize you left your phone at home? There’s a name for it now. Even Merriam-Webster has recognized it:

Nomophobia: the fear of being without access to a working cell phone.

Believe it or not, nomophobia — or rather, no-mobile-phonia — is a real thing and it’s affecting businesses, especially restaurants, where, in theory, people go to escape the constant buzz of reality. There has been an uptick in the number of people who can’t go a single meal without using their cell phones. And dining rooms across the country are on the receiving end.

Cellphones rule?

“We have a list of rules on the top of our menu,” says Dustin Ronspies, chef/owner of Art of the Table, a pocket-sized restaurant in Wallingford. “The first one is ‘Put away your cell phone’. Most everyone reads it. I wish I could say I enforce it, but with a $400 per couple bill, it’s hard to tell someone to lose their phone.”

Hitchcock's tiny bar/Jay Trinidad

Mobile phones go beyond just the camera app for Instagram-worthy pictures. They’ve become something we peer into, rather than the eyes of the person sitting across from us at the table. Brendan McGill, owner of Hitchcock restaurant on Bainbridge Island, understands this, but says as much as he would love to, a cell phone ban is hard to enforce. Plus, it has the potential of setting a negative vibe for the entire evening.

“I think if someone broke out a boom box or started obnoxiously video conferencing, we would ask them to please consider the other guests and not use their device in that manner. Maybe it’s because people have had their phones for a while, or maybe we’re all just getting more used to selfie culture, but I feel that it is less of a pain in the ass than it used to seem like it was.

I walked through the Pike Place Market for the first time in a while on Friday morning and instead of gaggles of tourists staring around open-mouthed, they were scrambling to take selfies: individually, in groups, in front of famous signs, etc. So sad that people can’t just enjoy the world around them anymore.”

courtesy of Bizzarro Italian Café

Others, like Bizzarro owner Jodi-Paul Wooster, take the cellphone issue more personally. He has a chalkboard displayed that lists a cell phone surcharge of five dollars — translated in every currency. Point made.

“It’s a joke. We put it up over ten years ago, before phone use became so pervasive. I think it serves to make people aware. If someone is especially egregious in their phone use, a server will ring a bell and yell out ‘Cell phone!’ and the kitchen yells back ‘Five dollars!’ We never actually charge.”

The thing all three of these restaurateurs have in common is that they operate small, intimate restaurants. And as restaurants shrink in size, the less inconspicuous mobile phones become. It’s the equivalent of shining a flashlight in a movie theater.

“The horror of looking into the dimly lit dining room to see half a dozen faces lit up with the white light of their iPhones,” says Ronspies. “It used to set me off bad, but I kind of gave it up before I burst a blood vessel.”

Is what we have here a failure to communicate?

Ronspies, who’s in the throes of expanding into a larger space, specifically created Art of the Table to showcase his food and hospitality, the latter of which gets harder for every patron who arrives with their cellphone in hand.

“People who go out to eat should engage with each other, spend time conversing, dining, drinking, getting away from the hustle of the outside world,” says Ronspies. “Be in the moment of experiencing the restaurant, the food — not Yelp. It kills me to see people go through a nine course tasting menu and spend the whole time on social media without a word to their dining companion or a look or response to their server. To not actually look up and respond to ‘Would you like another drink?’ I find it utterly RUDE.”

courtesy of Jodi-Paul Wooster

“We are a tiny restaurant,” says Wooster. “Nobody needs a loud one-sided conversation right next to them. When people ask about what the surcharge is about I always say, ‘You’re about to eat with friends and family. Why would you need to be on your phone?’”

McGill says he used to feel more strongly about the whole cell phone thing, but he’s sort of just accepted the ridiculousness of it all. It’s easier than fighting a losing battle.

“Once upon a time, I made a policy that the bartender didn’t need to charge people’s cell phones, and some people picked it up and made a real big deal out of it. In an attempt to offer genuine hospitality, while preserving the roles (and cleanliness) of the bartender, we bought a fancy charger with several common plugs and allowed people to borrow it if they were out of juice.”

All three have come to terms with mobile devices in their restaurants. Well, except for maybe Ronspies, who shares this advice for anyone looking for a way to get rid of cell phone use in their business.

“Ban ‘em. Take them all away and throw them in the street.”

Compromise

Wooster, who dislikes mobile phones only slightly less than Ronspies, says it’s important to remember the people coming into your restaurant aren’t customers, they’re guests.

“I don’t tell people to take off their shoes when they come to my house, but my family and I will remove ours and hopefully a good guest would respond accordingly. I don’t think you can ban cellphone use when you invite people into your restaurant; it’s pretentious to dictate rules, but I think you can raise an awareness.”

Wooster does say that while he doesn’t get much pushback, he did recently receive a handwritten, “passive-aggressive” note from a diner who was offended by his surcharge.

The note reads, in part:

I’m annoyed by people in restaurants who are constantly on their cellphones. Telling someone not to use them, however, is much more annoying. I felt distracted and irritated through my entire meal by this arrogant infringement of personal freedom.

“They weren’t using their phone, and no one had said anything to them about cell phone use,” says Wooster. “I had no idea anything was wrong. They never said anything or asked about the chalkboard. They tipped 12 percent and self-righteously climbed into their Subaru Outback.”

courtesy of Jodi-Paul Wooster

Like Wooster, McGill and Ronspies seem to have forgone the initial rage of cell phone addiction in lieu of simply trying to live with the fact that this is a modern chronic condition.

“I’ve asked people in a jovial manner to leave it alone for a few hours to ‘Enjoy the meal and the folks you are dining with,’” says Ronspies. “When I did Supper Club [a three nights per week single seating with a four-course, prix fixe menu], the first thing I would say as I was addressing the room was, ‘Put your phones away for a few hours and forget about the outside world for while.’ Folks would laugh and think it was great, and 10 minutes in, they’re surfing Facebook. I’m not one for heavy confrontations, so I just work myself up in the kitchen instead.”


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