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Have smartphones ruined the dining-out experience?

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NEW YORK -- Your smartphone is the scourge of restaurants. Customers snapping photos of food and dawdling on Facebook at meals have slowed down table service by an hour during the last 10 years, as an anonymous post on Craigslist's "rants & raves" section recently alleged. The writer claimed his restaurant, located in Manhattan's Midtown East and serving "both locals and tourists," had studied security footage from July 2004 and compared it with a tape of a recent Thursday this month. The takeaway: Today's technologically distracted diners take longer to order, longer to eat and longer to pay -- and then they blame the restaurant for the wait! "We are grateful for everyone who comes into our restaurant," the aggrieved restaurateur wrote, "but can you please be a bit more considerate?"

In almost no time, the indignant and now deleted Craigslist screed set the Internet alight. A post on Distractify transcribing the entire complaint quickly racked up more than 750,000 shares and 2,600 comments. "Smartphone use in restaurants prompts Craigslist rant," announced the BBC. "Cellphones slowing down service in restaurants. Wait times have doubled because customers are too busy with their screens," blared the Daily Mail. "Why you should (really, seriously, permanently) stop using your smartphone at dinner," proclaimed the Washington Post.

Tempting as it can be to take anonymous, unsubstantiated Craigslist rants at face value, we decided to do a little digging on this one. Let's take a closer look at some of the specific claims made by the Craigslist post about customers in 2014:

-- 26 out of 45 customers spend an average of three minutes taking photos of the food.

-- 14 out of 45 customers take pictures of each other with the food in front of them or as they are eating the food. This takes on average another 4 minutes as they must review and sometimes retake the photo.

-- Nine out of 45 customers sent their food back to reheat. Obviously if they didn't pause to do whatever on their phone the food wouldn't have got cold.

-- 27 out of 45 customers asked their waiter to take a group photo. 14 of those requested the waiter retake the photo as they were not pleased with the first photo. On average this entire process between the chit-chatting and reviewing the photo taken added another five minutes and obviously caused the waiter not to be able to take care of other tables he/she was serving.

"I think this is clearly a fake -- the whole scenario is made up," says Luke O'Neil, a food industry writer for publications including Slate who spent more than 10 years working in the restaurant business. "It seems like one of these things that's designed to make a point."

Smartphones have undoubtedly become a hot-button issue for the restaurant world in recent years. Some chefs have publicly decried phone pics and social media for ruining the dining experience, while others have banned the use of devices in their dining areas altogether. But is cellphone use really causing massive disruptions to restaurant service?

"I haven't noticed that," says Patrick Duxbury, general manager at TAO Downtown in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. "We are a very busy restaurant -- we service well over 600, 700, 800 diners a night -- and I don't necessarily think we'd be able to do that if smartphones were in our way."

Other chefs, waiters, and restaurateurs echo this sentiment. John Kapetanos, owner of Ethos in Manhattan's Midtown East -- the same neighbourhood as the anonymous Craigslist poster -- says maybe 10 per cent of his customers ask the waiter to take a group photo; it's a favour that takes less than a minute and doesn't slow down service. During the 12 years Ethos has been in business, Kapetanos says cellphones have added maybe five to 10 minutes to the average table time, but he doesn't mind as long as diners at one table aren't bothering those at another.

 

-- Slate

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 17, 2014 B7

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