Tech at the Table: Friend or Foe?

Social Media in the Restaurant Industry

After a viral article earlier this year saying that customers’ use of social media caused long restaurant wait times, the Internet was abuzz with articles proclaiming the negative use of smartphones during the dining experience. In retaliation, several other articles came out denying the negatives and proclaiming the positives social media has brought to the restaurant industry with increased access to the brand, customer reviews, and ability to visually share the dining experience. This notion was backed by many chefs, waiters, and restaurateurs who believe that social media is an excellent avenue to get the word out there about their food. However, though social media is considered one of the most credible sources of reviews, 35% of consumers admitted to using their phone on a dinner date in 2013, detracting from the personal aspect of dining. Thus, has social media truly enhanced our dining experiences or ruined them?

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The Good

With 81% of consumers searching for a restaurant on a mobile app and 92% through a traditional web browser, the restaurant industry has become the most searched industry on mobile and the web. Online reviews are continually becoming more important for both consumers and the restaurants themselves. One study done by NYU shows that restaurant ratings and number of reviews have a positive correlation with restaurant revenues. Thus, it’s no surprise that restaurants are doing all they can to use social media to their advantage. In fact, 80% of consumers think it’s important to see a menu before they dine at a restaurant and 62% are less likely to choose a restaurant if they can’t view the menu online. Furthermore, the use of mobile apps allows users to make reservations, find locations, and share reviews, helping consumers to a better dining experience.

With these facts, it is clear that social media is a necessary part if the restaurant industry. The increasing use of social media sites like Instagram and blogs gives every consumer the power to be a foodie. No longer are acclaimed critics and publicists controlling the reputation of the restaurant. At its core, social media is free advertising for restaurants. By simply sharing a photo or experience on your network you can reach thousands.

Additionally, there is strong interest in more customer-facing technology as consumers look to connect and engage with restaurant in real time, while also improving their dining experience. Such technology includes iPad menus for food or wine and electronic payment systems. One director of ThinkFoodGroup explains that the advantage of the digital menu lies in the increased amount of content you can display and the ability to update it at a moment’s notice.

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The Bad

In the original viral article mentioned, a NYC restaurant that was continually receiving bad reviews for slow service hired a firm to investigate the problem. They found after watching surveillance tapes from 2004 and 2014 that it was the consumers’ use of phones in the restaurant that was truly behind the longer waiting times. The anonymous rant claimed that dining time went from 1 hour and 5 minutes in 2004 to 1 hour and 55 minutes in 2014 all because of taking photos and in general being preoccupied by their phones.

Though this Craiglist rant could not be verified, several articles voiced the same concerns. Most Americans disapprove of cell phone use during a meal, however a whopping 88% of Millennials admit to checking their phone while eating, 44% of that same age group disapproving of the use.

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What’s worse, is that in a study done by researchers at Virginia Tech, “even without the active use, the presence of mobile technologies has the potential to divert individuals from face-to-face exchanges, thereby undermining the character and depth of these connections.” Essentially by just having your cell phone physically present, the experience becomes much less personal. Further studies show that cell phone use makes us more distracted, stressed, and selfish. Nine out of ten people report damaged relationships due to family and friends neglecting them in favor of technology.

As a result, some restaurants have taken a stand. Most recently an Iowa restaurant promises to give customers a 10% discount on their meal if they hand over their cell phones once they arrive in the restaurant. In Israel last year, a 50% discount was given to anyone who would switch off their phone during their meal. At the far end of the spectrum, a few restaurants have even taken it to a new level and actually banned the use of cell phones in their premises.

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The Ugly Truth?

With clear negative results on others, has the use of social media fundamentally made dining out less of a personal experience? Or does social media actually enhance the experience by helping you to determine the restaurant you want to go and then allowing you to share your food or service with your network? As a diner, what do you think? Does social media positively or negatively affect your dining experience?

8 comments

  1. Nice post Megan! I liked how you asked some questions at the end of your post to start a dialogue!

    I know that I have been guilty of Instagramming a meal or a drink when I’m out at a nice restaurant. While taking pictures of food or drinks has certainly made the dining experience longer than before, I don’t think it has made it less of a personal experience. My friends that I go out to dinner with usually know that I’ll take a picture of food or a drink, and we’ll put a hold on the conversation. As soon as the pictures are done though, we go right back to our conversation and continue to enjoy each others company. In my case the experience has shifted to allow for the photo sessions, but I don’t think the quality of the time with friends has changed at all. Social media has definitely enhanced the ability to find good restaurants quickly through the use of sites like Yelp. However, as I learned from writing my blog, less weight may need to be given to some of these reviews. I think social media positively effects my dining experience and can better allow you to advocate for a restaurant that you think is great. Recently my brother and sister-in-law decided to try a local brunch place based solely on an Instagram photo that I took. It is now one of their favorite places to get brunch. Without social media I don’t think I would have been able to properly convey the aesthetic quality of the food. I believe that you eat with your eyes first and social media allows you to do that from anywhere.

  2. Great post Megan! I feel that I too am torn between whether social media has enhanced or detracted from the dining experience. I love taking photos of my meal to remember the experience and inspire others to try the restaurant. I also heavily rely on reviews when choosing a place to eat; I will almost never venture to new place that doesn’t have at least a 3.5 on Yelp. I think social media has made the dining consumer more informed and more engaged with the experience they are having, for people are consciously making an effort to share their delicious meal or criticize the restaurant in hopes for improvements.

    While I think social media can definitely can boost interaction around dining, I do find it also may take away from the communal atmosphere eating should hold. When I am out with a big group of people especially, I take notice of its distraction. It is hard to engage with everyone at such a large table, and fiddling on your phone is a much easier social option. Therefore, I am glad more restaurants like the examples you gave are incentivizing customers to simply be present in the moment. Sometimes we just need the extra push to step outside our comfort zones and enjoy each other’s pure presence.

    Overall, I think social media will end up enhancing the dining experience more than harming it! I don’t think the majority of people are ready to surrender a social time to more isolation and societal pressures will shift eating back to a communal event.

  3. Nice post Megan! I think you really touch on some true positives and negatives of social media and the restaurant industry. In my opinion, the positives outweigh the negatives. This summer I was working in an unfamiliar area of San Francisco and heavily relied on Yelp. It helped me find restaurants that I would have never tried or even found if it weren’t for positive reviews on the site. I know Yelp reviews can help make or break a restaurant and is seen as extremely important in the industry.

    I definitely understand the negatives of social media/mobile usage during an actual sit down meal in a restaurant. I’m guilty of checking my phone often, especially if there’s a long wait and I’m hungry (or hangry.) I’ve started playing the phone game with friends to help eradicate this social behavior. When we go to a restaurant or bar we all stack our phones in the middle of the table. The first person to take their phone from the stack has to pick up the bill. Similar to restaurants offering discounts, it gives an incentive to engage in human interaction that’s uninterrupted by social distraction.

  4. This is a really cool post, mostly because (as demonstrated in the above comments), it’s very pertinent to people’s lives and thoughts. I was unaware that restaurants were offering discounts for people who were willing to give up their phones, but I think it’s brilliant. Chefs face an interesting situation, because as you said, they want people to see, hear about, and seek out their food. Logically, it makes total sense to use SM to accomplish all of this and the results have proven drastic, per your cited statistics. However, I would imagine that once the consumer actually sits down at the table and is tasting the food, the chef would prefer a conversation to begin and be fully focus on the dish or the restaurant as a whole (among other things), versus the multitasking that occurs when someone eats and checks their phone. Not enough attention is paid to the details of the food, so the food may not actually be enjoyed to its fullest.

    I would definitely struggle to find restaurants without social media, so I’m very glad the two are connected. However, I would consider myself a traditionalist when it comes to actually eating a meal and think that phones should be put away (due very much in part to my mother’s demands back home). I hope more restaurants adopt this business model. It’s sad to acknowledge that people need an excuse now to make conversation with each other, but at least it’s a step back towards reality.

  5. Great, post Megan. You always write compelling pieces. I also saw the article about cell phones apparently being the cause of long meal times and found it very interesting. I think it’s important for people to put their phones down during dinner, but I’ve never considered your point about the phone being a distraction simply by being in sight. Do you think we should eat without our phones?

    You also made some good points on the positives of the food industry. Reviews have become so important and I typically check websites like Yelp before dining out. It really is a tough situation to rely so heavily on social media in that sense, as well as Instagram, FB, etc., and then to say no to customers being “connected” while in your restaurant. While I believe most dinners would be upset by not being able to use their phones, I don’t believe that too many would realize the paradoxical nature between their reliance for reviews and their desire for shorter restaurant visits.

  6. Great post, Megan! I agree with a lot that has already been said. It is definitely hard to find the right balance between using your phone at the dinner table to enhance your experience and using it so much that it distracts you. Also it is astonishing to me that the average time a person spends out to eat has almost doubled in the past ten years! I wonder if there are other factors to this statistic. Perhaps people have spent more time talking with their families or restaurants in general are focused more on the quality of their food and the amount of time it takes to get food out. Regardless, I do think social media and smartphones have played some role in this increase.
    I recently noticed the Chili’s commercial that has tablets at the table for ordering food, games, and paying the check. I think this undermines the dining experience at places that are supposed to be more than just a quick-service meal. I also feel like this would detract from the other people at the table, as you will have an even bigger screen to be distracted by. But I would not be surprised if in the future we see a decrease in the necessity of having a wait staff, especially at large chains and lower-end restaurants.

  7. Great post, Megan! I actually interned for a restaurant tech company, so I learned a good deal about how tech is revolutionizing the QSR and fast casual dining segments. If you’re interested, their blog has a ton of good content on tech in the industry: http://olo.tumblr.com/.
    I don’t think that technology hinders the restaurant industry itself, but rather how we experience it. It all ties back to the concept of Hannah’s post this week–is the constant connectedness tech provides actually making us less social? I love that initiative the Iowa restaurant you mentioned took in incentivizing customers to unplug for an hour or two to enjoy their food and their dining company. It would be really cool if restaurants would join together in such an effort.

  8. Love this post! I think you bring up some really good points. I love the quote, “The increasing use of social media sites like Instagram and blogs gives every consumer the power to be a foodie”, because it’s so true. There are so many ways to gather information about a restaurant before even stepping foot in the physical place. Technology and social media has definitely played a large role in gaining awareness and maintaining loyal followers for some restaurants, I know I follow all of my favorites on Instagram. I also think the idea of using iPads as menus in restaurants may be on the rise, and there are so many creative ways to use it. The restaurant I interned at two summers ago used iPads solely for their wine list, and customers were allowed to enter their taste preferences in order to get a list of suggested wines for their taste, which is pretty awesome. Personally though, I don’t think I would enjoy being handed an iPad at a restaurant – I think it takes away from the whole experience of sharing a meal with someone. I am 100% in the team of no phones at dinner. It seems that technology does a lot of cool things for the restaurant industry, and that the negatives are problems in our overall lives that just get carried over to when we eat at restaurants. I am sure that article that went viral is absolutely right, it may not just be because we are taking food pictures, but when we first sit down we spend minutes checking our phones instead of engaging with the menu right after sitting down. I’ve waitressed in several restaurants and definitely find that to be true. The restaurant that is offering a discount if you leave your phone with them is on to something!

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