Put Down the Phone, Pick Up the Fork!

In a fascinating rant on Craigslist, a restaurant details how it investigated why service had gotten slower over the years even though there was nothing new or different about its operating model. Complaints about slow service were of course finding their way onto review sites, which is bad for business.

This restaurant happened to have kept surveillance video from a decade earlier. The management decided to watch it to see what had changed, hoping to find a clue as to what they were doing right back then. And, boy did they.

The restaurant discovered that, ten years ago, they were able to serve customers within the hour. These days, the same meal process take about 2 hours. That’s a significant difference; clearly demonstrating that service had gotten slower.

The reason? Smartphones. Customers are on their phone even before they are seated, they waste server time asking for help with wifi and they don’t look at the menu until they are done with their phone (presumably taking photos, checking in). After customers order, they spend time taking and retaking photos of the food…allowing it to go cold in the process, leading to more requests to reheat food. Even the check process is longer as customers linger on their phone, take group photos (sometimes at the expense of the server’s time) and maybe even write a review. When you add it all up, significant time is wasted on phones or because of phones leading to service delays and turnover problems.

There are things restaurants can do to mitigate this situation:

  • Make the menu easily accessible online so people can familiarize themselves with it ahead of time (please: no annoying PDF menus, they don’t render well on mobile). Ideally, customers can just order directly from their phone and with an iBeacon, you know where they’re sitting (obviously not suitable for fine dinning);
  • Get great wifi, with no passwords or other hurdles. Customers are going to connect, might as well make it easy and quick;
  • Have the server talk about the specials immediately. This focuses customers on the menu;
  • Use mobile payment options when possible to cut out the ask for check, get check, sign, leave cycle.

There are also some clear opportunities to be had with the “smartphone addicts”. Let them help you market the business. Point out the restaurant FB page, Instagram or Twitter and ask customers to tag/check in. Definitely ask customers for private feedback (ideally using OwnerListens) while they’re on their smartphones. Such customers are more likely to write reviews on public sites and it’s important to intercept any bad reviews whenever possible. A great way to do this is with a nice postcard at the end of the meal asking for negative feedback privately and requesting that positive feedback be shared via a review or social media post.


The bottom line is that the industry needs to work together to accept that smartphones are here to stay, utilize them in ways to help restaurants, and educate customers about the industry. It’s always shocking to us how little consumers understand the restaurant industry’s economics and constraints. If consumers were more aware, they might be more considerate. Some more education could go a long way.

Restaurateurs are not alone. The smartphone can pose a problem for other verticals too. Customers come to doctors having looked up things online. They have more questions and take up more of their time, but the insurance pays per visit. Customers go in electronics stores and spend time with a sales associate and then double check or price compare with their phone while the sales associate is idle and waiting. A customer can spend hours trying on sunglasses or jewelry and uploading pics online to get friend feedback. There are many more examples and the market direction is clear. Like it or not, mobile is changing everything and service needs to adapt and get more efficient. Luckily for you, OwnerListens can help.

Hat tip to Leiti Hsu (@leitihsu) who first posted this Craigslist rant.

Photo by waagsociety

Comment (1)

  1. Jon

    This is coming from someone in IT, so I have some prejudices going into this from the technological side.

    While I do agree that people who are addicted to smartphones can drag out just about anything they do, some of the suggestions mentioned here are a bit ludacris. I know many restaurants that are looking into mobile payment options, but many times these are not cheap to purchase, or maintain. The better places I chose to go to when I eat out, the servers at least ask if the people are interested in the specials when they sit down. A phone addict won’t know what they said because they are too busy checking Facebook and Instagram every 5 minutes. I think the most ridiculous one is asking a restaurant to have unsecured wifi access. These places can process hundreds, if not thousands, of transactions a day. I don’t need someone to decide to hack into that and steal my bank card.It has happened to me on numerous occasions, and sucks each time.

    While restaurants do have to adapt with the times, I think people also have to remember manners and courtesy. A number of places I eat at will not serve you or ask you to leave if you are taking too much time on a phone screwing off. I understand if you are getting your friend something to go, but don’t hold people up because you want to write a review or post photos in line to pay your bill. It causes other customers to get slowed down as well. As the title implies, put down the phone and pick up the fork. This should apply to the addicts as well as restaurants. Life exists outside of the little glowing screen in your hand.

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