As restaurants look to technology for better performance, a story recently going viral is perhaps the most poignant example yet of how tech, specifically customers’ cell phones, is also posing new challenges. This reinvigorates the cell phone etiquette debate as it continues to play out—with restaurants as the main stage. And the pros vs. cons still yield a front-of-the-house divided.

Detailed by numerous outlets including the Boston Herald, the story involves a recent Craigslist post by an anonymous but “popular restaurant for both locals and tourists alike” in New York City.

Post Highlights:

  • The restaurant noted a trend of online complaints for slow service and wait times, and hired a 3rd party firm to investigate.
  • The firm compared surveillance tapes from ten years ago against recent footage to analyze more than 45 transactions.
  • From menu browsing and ordering to general communication and eating of served food, almost every stage of the experience was apparently lengthened by cell phone use.
  • The total turn-around time for a table went from an average of 1:05 in 2004 to 1:55 in 2014.

Since cell phones became truly prolific in the early-90’s (your over-the-shoulder satchels don’t count), public etiquette has evolved alongside them. And as with any public etiquette debate (e-cigarettes anyone?), restaurants are often the main stage.

The Digital Dining Experience

For starters, guests do feel the need to communicate with the outside world during their meal. While this might be simply a perceived need to discuss last weeks’ episode of The Walking Dead, they could also be coordinating with friends joining for dinner or suggesting drinks at your bar after.

Then, of course much of this behavior is the result of restaurants leveraging social media, web and mobile marketing. “Like us on Facebook,” “Text ‘###’ to receive mobile specials,” “Check in and save 10%.” For many operations, these are valuable tools to fill seats. And that means apps like Foursquare, Swarm, Facebook, Yelp will continue to cast a glow on diners' faces.

Finally, on a most basic level is guests’ desire to share their experience. Let’s face it. Just like the guy on the bus holding his copy of Infinite Jestunnecessarily high, folks who go to a great restaurant are understandably proud of the experience they’re having and want the world to know. And that’s good for restaurants, too.

Grill Interrupted
Alas, all of this calling, texting, web browsing and picture taking is apparently taking a toll. If the New York operation posting on Craigslist is indeed experiencing two fold table turn times versus ten years ago—numbers are most definitely affected.

There’s also the belief that if a guest is distracted—by phone or otherwise—that guest misses out on a carefully crafted, 360-degree experience restaurants take great pains to create. One restaurant terms this phenomenon “Gastro ADD.” And of course—it can affect the experience of other diners.

Taking It Offline
So for one reason or another, many restaurants are taking steps to remove cell phones from the dining experience.  Here’s a list of interesting articles offering food for thought on restaurants offering discounts to turn off phones, outright banning their use, or still struggling with the decision. See what others are doing and let us know what you think.