Restaurant owners might have opposing views on smartphones, but they all agreed the technology is here to stay. / Flickr user "lutramania"
When was the last time you were held up by someone who couldn't take their eyes off their smartphone? If you work in the restaurant industry, it probably hasn't been long.
Last month an anonymous Craigslist post went viral, arguing that - when it comes to smartphones, at least-the customer may not always be right. The author of the rant claimed to represent a busy Manhattan restaurant that had noted an uptick in negative customer reviews, many of which focused on slow service.
In investigating the issue, management at the restaurant studied security footage from 2004 and compared it to similar video from this year. They found that average table times had indeed increased from just over an hour in 2004 to nearly two hours in 2014.
But the writer says the restaurant isn't at fault. Instead, the post argues, it's the customers: tweeting, texting, Instagramming customers. Allegedly, many of these "phone zombies," as they've been dubbed by the New York media, linger at their tables and then blame the restaurant for their unreasonably long meals.
An anonymous Craigslist post ought to be taken with a huge grain of salt, but it still got us wondering: What do food service professionals really think about the ubiquity of mobile technology?
As it turns out, at least some of them can sympathize with the anonymous rant. According to Teri Haymer, owner of the popular Café Luna in Cambridge, Mass., everything in the post is "100% true."
"It takes customers much longer to order (because) they're looking at something on their phones, or they're on their tablet, or they're looking at pictures," she says.
James Lozano, co-owner of the East Coast Grill, says he hasn't noticed significant changes in table times over the years. But that doesn't mean mobile technology hasn't had an impact on his business.
"The smartphone has completely changed the industry in terms of how people get to the restaurant, and even more once they arrive," he says. Mobile devices not only open up more effective marketing opportunities, but also help restaurants seat more guests and provide alternative ways for them to accept payments.
Mark D'Alessandro, general manager of Boston's swank French restaurant Mistral, says you can't talk about smartphones without mentioning social media.
Sometimes diners will post comments about their meal to Twitter or Facebook, right from their table. "If it's not going as well as I'd like it to go," he explains, "then I try to locate that person in the dining room and address the situation right then and there."
But not every diner publishes thoughts directly from the table. Many wait until they get home, where they have more time to think about it, where they're out of reach of the staff, and where they're more likely to be critical.
Lozano, for instance, can recall customers who said nice things to his face, only to go home and trash the restaurant on social media.
That could be because smartphones have a way of empowering people at the expense of face-to-face communication. A 2012 study by researchers in Hong Kong found shy people - those are already averse to face-to-face communication -t end to be more "addicted" to their smartphones. Why be confrontational when you can simply go home, log on, and vent from the safety of a keyboard?
And then there's the anonymity afforded by business review sites like Yelp, UrbanSpoon, and OpenTable. Researchers have found a positive correlation between nasty online comments and a personal tendency toward sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.
"I think social media gives people a place where they can hide behind something," Lozano adds, "and they think 'you don't know me, so I can blast you, but I would never say it in front of your face.' That's what hurts the most."
Psychology aside, it seems clear that smartphones have shifted the balance of power in the restaurant industry toward customers. Still, none of the restaurant managers we spoke to think they are more a problem than a solution. Even Haymer, who believes mobile tech has drastically slowed restaurant service, agrees that the pros outweigh the cons.
"It's cultural," she adds, noting that the technology is not going away, so restaurateurs will simply have to adapt.
For Lozano, the most important thing is simple courtesy - from both restaurants and their guests. That may strike a nerve with some customers, who expect restaurants to accommodate their every whim, but he's committed to the principle.
"If we can be courteous, you can be courteous," he says. "Yes, it's a business, but you should just be courteous."
Smartphone or no smartphone, it really is that simple.
Read the original story: Restaurant owners differ on merits of mobile tech