Smartphones have changed the landscape for eating out


Mike Myrick, left, and Josh Brannon, right, check their phones while dining at the Wahoo Seafood Grill in Gainesville on Friday.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, August 30, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 29, 2014 at 8:23 p.m.

After reading an online rant from a New York restaurant that complaints about slow service were caused by customers’ incessant smartphone use, Shawn Shepherd decided to do a little checking on his own.

Shepherd, co-owner of both Wahoo Seafood Grill and Vellos Brickstreet Grill, sat at the door of Wahoo with a manager and found that eight out of 10 customers asked if the restaurant had Wi-Fi and then asked for the Wi-Fi code. Then they watched tables and noticed that when servers came to take orders, most customers sent them away the first time because they had been busy on their phones and had not looked at the menu.

The delay throws off a timing regimen multiplied by other tables and other delays that has a ripple effect on the entire dining experience, Shepherd said.

According to the post in Craigslist’s “rants & raves” section that purports to be from an unnamed Manhattan restaurant, the average dinner time went from one hour and five minutes in 2004 to one hour and 55 minutes in 2014 because customers immediately start using their smartphone instead of looking at the menu, ask wait staff for help connecting to Wi-Fi, take pictures of the food and each other, ask wait staff to take and retake group photos, and spend more time on their phone before paying the check.

Shepherd said the delays lead to a perception that the restaurants are not run correctly, and the complaints show up in social media sites such as TripAdvisor or Yelp. Most of the complaints he hears are on busy weekends from customers annoyed about how long they have to wait for a seat.

“What they do then is go ahead and blast you to hell, and people who have never been to your establishment start reading and believing what they read. Then they never give you an opportunity,” Shepherd said.

To try to speed up the process, Shepherd bought 14 handheld Leaf tablets that wait staff can use to enter orders at tables so they don’t have to walk over to one point-of-sale computer that every waiter shares. The tablets also can be used to swipe credit cards at the table. Shepherd said he plans to roll out the devices at Wahoo in October.

Shepherd said he was guilty of checking his smartphone at restaurants until he became aware of the issue and now he puts his phone away, at least until he places his order.

He emphasized that the problem is the delays caused by the use of devices and not social media use in and of itself. While bad reviews hurt, social media also has brought a lot of customers to the restaurants, he said.

“To take pictures if you’re proud of your food, it’s absolutely a great thing,” he said.

Cafe C encourages smartphone use by offering any customer who checks in on Facebook a free brownie.

Supervisor Kim Towner said that does bring in more business.

“When you see your friend’s name reoccurring frequently at this one place, it occurs to them, ‘Maybe I should go check this place out,’ ” she said.

Towner said delays are not an issue there because customers order at the register instead of getting table service.

Matthew Wrighton, owner of Maude’s Classic Cafe, said customers who are on their phones at the register do slow service.

Coffee houses such as Maude’s are expected to offer Wi-Fi and allow customers to camp out for hours or they don’t come, he said. Maude’s has made as many electrical outlets as possible available for customers to plug in their devices, including adding outlets to its outdoor patio in the past year and at its new bar, Maude’s Sidecar.

“That’s why coffee houses cost so much. It’s not the cost of the coffee. It’s the cost of electricity,” Wrighton said.

Bert Gill said he has not noticed a problem with delays caused by smartphone use as an owner of three full-service restaurants — Mildred’s, New Deal and Blue Gill.

He said he has noticed more texting and fewer loud phone conversations in recent years, and that more people will walk outside to talk on their phones, “which I think you have to be happy about as a diner.”

Another trend he is seeing is a lot of big tables — 12 to 18 people — from groups who communicate over social media and decide on a whim to go out. With that in mind, Blue Gill was designed as a versatile space to accommodate various sized groups.

“They’re using social media to determine where they’re going and then to have a consensus of where that spot will be — and that works for us,” he said.

Jorie Scholnik said that once at dinner, cellphones should be put away.

Scholnik, who teaches business etiquette for the Protocol School of Palm Beach and is an associate professor of student development at Santa Fe College, said she has seen entire families or both people on a date using their smartphones at restaurants.

“A good rule of thumb is that the person you are sitting with always takes priority over a cellphone,” she said.

If you are expecting a call, notify the person you are with in advance so he or she won’t feel insulted when you answer, Scholnik said.

Jamie Grooms, 54, said he answers his phone at a restaurant only if the call is from someone on his priority list, such as his wife or children, and then he tries to keep the conversation short. During a lunch break at Vellos on Thursday, he sat with his phone face down on the bar in front of him without picking it up.

Outside, Derrion Hendrix, 28, was checking his phone before going into Harry’s. He said if friends text him while he’s at a restaurant, he will text back, and occasionally he checks Facebook, but not always.

Morgan Roberts, 29, was texting his fiancee nearby while taking a break from his job as a video game designer. He said he will check his schedule on his phone or look up some fact as part of the conversation, but he said he tries to limit phone use in restaurants.

“If it’s just a simple ‘let’s go grab something quick to eat,’ then yeah, cellphone’s out, why not? But if it’s something more personal or you really just want to go out and have a nice dinner, then yeah, usually just keep it in your pocket,” he said.

Rather than delaying service, he said he is actually ready to order instantly because he looks up the menu on his phone before arriving at a restaurant.

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