7th Aug 2018

Would You Eat at a Restaurant that Banned Mobile Phones?


Mobile phones are an integral part of our everyday life. It's difficult to imagine being without them as they are not only our main method for communicating with others but they are our calendar, our entertainment, a tool we use for work, our camera, and so much more. It almost seems silly to think of willingly leaving your phone behind on an evening out, doesn't it? Well, that's what some restaurants and pubs are now asking you to do. These establishments have banned mobile phones from their premises. And while only a handful have started the trend in motion, others are following suit.

The restaurants and pubs that have already outlawed mobile devices cite various reasons for making the decision. Some insist that mealtime should be a special event, with the focus on connecting with your companions. Others have merely banned the bother of photography at their restaurant, fighting against the growing tide of diners (most often millennials) who are photographing and Instagramming their meals extensively.

The “rules” surrounding phone usage at restaurants and cafes varies widely, from a restaurant that merely suggests you put away your phones, to another that enforces the rules with the vigour of a sports referee.

But no matter how strict the policy, this begs the question, would you choose to eat at a restaurant where you couldn’t bring your phone?

No Phones Allowed

Petit Jardin in France. Like a rowdy football game, the serving staff will actually blow a whistle at you if you’re caught using your phone inside this restaurant. A cozy barbecue restaurant, Petit Jardin is located approximately 3 hours from the Southern French city of Marseille. In an effort to rekindle “traditional French values” and encourage conversation, Jean-Noël Fleury has adopted this strict phone-free policy for his restaurant. He compares the practise to attending the theatre or the cinema, where patrons are accustomed to switching off their phones without question.

Yet, not everyone is a fan of his policy. The restaurant lists its rules clearly on the building’s exterior---so you do know what to expect before entry. But if you break one of the rules, namely, using your mobile phone, you’ll get a loud, public scolding and receive a dreaded yellow card (à la football, indeed). Don’t wait for a red card, though. This is doled out to customers who break the rules repeatedly and who are asked to leave the restaurant. As you might expect, this type of exodus is quite unpleasant.

Interestingly, Fleury also prohibits a few other things in his restaurant: ketchup, mayonnaise, and Coca-Cola, perhaps in the vein of promoting true French cuisine. Needless to say, this is a place with a unique approach.

Some restaurants hold the practise in a less serious light. Bizarro Italian Cafe, located in Seattle, Washington, accepts that phone usage is exceedingly common, but still attempts to discourage it. When entering the restaurant, a chalkboard has a mobile phone “surcharge” warning scrawled onto it. This is stated as a $5 charge. But the restaurant upholds this policy only with a sense of fun. Owner Jodi-Paul Wooster says, “It’s a joke...If someone is especially egregious in their phone use, a server will ring a bell and yell out ‘Cell phone!’ and the kitchen yells back ‘Five dollars!’ We never actually charge.”

Banning mobile phones---or at least strongly discouraging their use--- is not limited to one corner of the globe. British restaurateurs are giving it a go. In Leamington Spa, UK, a Japanese deli known as Auradaze made news in 2016 when it opted to say no to phones. Yet, it’s not necessarily a hard and fast rule, and having one’s phone on the table, such as for emergency workers who need to remain on call, is accepted and understood. A sign displays the no phone request, and while Chef Darren Yates doesn’t mind diners snapping the occasional photo, it’s the texting or phone conversations that he wants to avoid. He says, “the psychology behind it is that for two hours when having a meal and breaking bread, the focus should be on conversation.”

Across the Atlantic, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, another restaurant is a bit unwelcoming to phones, but only those of the camera variety. Carthage Must Be Destroyed is a pink-hued, funky restaurant that is just begging to be Instagrammed. Despite it’s appealing decor, the restaurant does not allow photography. In hipster-filled Brooklyn, one might imagine some backlash against this move. Various online reviews tell of customers being reprimanded for taking photos or include complaints about the restaurant’s stringent rules. But just how strict is the policy, exactly? Photos of the restaurant on Instagram show that some diners have toed the line and captured the coveted shot. Yet, according to guests, the parameters are pretty strict indeed. When you arrive at the restaurant, alongside your menu, you receive a list of the overall rules, including no photo shoots or “excessive photo taking”, no photos of the restaurant or kitchen, and no flash photography. One exception lists pictures taken within "your personal space."

A Smarter Way to Discourage Phone Use

Perhaps an outright ban is not the right move for restaurants, pubs, and cafes. Other businesses have taken on a different approach---one that is a lot more customer-friendly.

Closer to home, a Sydney restaurant has adopted a fairly brilliant policy when it comes to mobile phones. Contact Bar and Kitchen would like to help people better connect during their meal. The restaurant asks customers to relinquish their phones upon arrival, and if they do so, they receive a complimentary glass of wine. Not a bad compromise, and it comes as no surprise that many would be more than willing to go along with the policy.

Owner Markus Stauder says that they’ve so far had a 100% success rate and that customers are reacting with approval. Those who wish to keep their phone with them can do so, too, a practise which gives more agency to customers and feels like, ultimately, a better way to approach this issue.

It seems that consumers aren’t too fond of being forced to surrender their mobile devices, but when given the option to do so, many oblige willingly. And when a reward is offered in exchange, the results may be even better.

A Problematic Method?

While some establishments are putting mobile phone bans or policies in place, this is still a practise that is pretty rare. It’s not too surprising, because, on some occasions, the backlash has been fierce.

Last year, a cafe and bar in Halifax, Canada, implemented a policy of “no screens after 5 pm.” The reaction was swift and harsh. Incensed patrons took to social media to air their grievances, with many calling the move “patronising” and “crossing a line.” One of the most strident criticisms came in the form of a tweet: “Well, I know where I won't be going. I can manage my own device usage, be a social human being and engage with people on my own terms.” The Lion & Bright issued a response, and noted that the rule was aimed at laptops and tablets, not mobile phones. They stood firm on their stance, reiterating that the policy was designed to help people better connect and to meet their neighbours.

People drinking at dinner table

Putting down the phones can help people connect

What’s the Answer?

Should restaurants, pubs, and cafes be placing restrictions on their customers? Likely this is not the most effective strategy. The rejection of devices at the dinner table does have a positive impact. In fact, science shows it allows us to better enjoy our meals. But it seems to be prudent to let customers make their own digital decisions.

Instead of an outright ban, restaurants can try a different strategy. First, they can try scheduling a few select times per week when mobile phones are prohibited. This UK restaurant hosts a “tech-free date night,” so couples who want to prioritise conversation can do so. Second, restaurants providing incentives to hand over phones seem to be getting it right. Not only are they promoting a screen-free mealtime, but they’re offering customers something beneficial in exchange. Finally, restaurants can simply leave the question of mobile phones up to the customers themselves. And for those who do want to minimise their phone usage, there are a few DIY options.

Your dining party can elect together to forego smartphone distraction and focus on the conversation. You can even turn it into a game. Have everyone place their phones face down in the centre of the table. No one is permitted to pick up their device during the evening. The first to “break” and grab for their phone pays for the meal---or at least shouts a round of beers.

One thing is for certain, it can be helpful to be reminded that human connections, and non-screen interactions, are vital. Whether or not a restaurant has rules in place, this new wave of mobile phone banning can serve to remind us of what’s most important in life.

What do you think? Would you eat a restaurant that banned mobile phones?

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