If you want to remember what it was like dining out in 2006 — the year before the iPhone came out — head to The Station restaurant in Bernardsville, New Jersey.
Nearly every diner who comes through the door participates in a (non-mandatory) discount program, in which they toss their phones in a breadbasket on the table in exchange for 5 percent off the final bill. Oh, and some old-fashioned pencil-and-paper games (think Hangman and tic-tac-toe).
Manager Geraldine Infantolino instituted the idea. “I kept seeing the tops of heads and no communication,” she says. “You’re paying money to eat. At least talk!”
Occasionally, a doctor on duty will want to keep his or her phone on, but for the most part, she says, customers love the program, which started a little over a year ago now.
“Just to hear the voices and laughing! I wish every restaurant would do this,” Infantolino says. “The other day, I heard a girl say, ‘Mommy, please, just for 10 minutes, listen and put the phone away — can we please do the 5 percent?’ It just hurt me,” she says.
A couple of years ago, Dish on Market in Louisville, Ky., started periodically running a similar discount — 5 percent off the bill in exchange for keeping the phone face-down at the edge of the table (servers enforce the no-peeking rule, though they make allowances for situations like parents checking for messages from the babysitter).
“It’s an opportunity to enjoy your company, the meal, your surroundings. It offers you an hour or hour-and-a-half vacation nowadays,” says owner Marshall Grissom.
At lunch, only about 10 percent of the lawyer-heavy crowd takes advantage of the deal, which makes sense, Grissom says. During the evenings, about 30 to 40 percent of diners excitedly say they’ll take part — but only 15 to 20 percent actually follow through, saying they just can’t do it, or even the lure of a discount isn’t worth it.
When you’re on your phone, “It’s almost like a Snapchat fast-food way of eating,” Grissom says. “You’re basically getting a snapshot of the food — you’re so focused on the phone, the food comes out, you take a couple bites, and the phone comes back out.”
But when you unplug, “Your senses are so much more heightened when you’re focused on who’s around you,” Grissom adds. “Before this, I didn’t realize how much I looked at my phone. You just automatically reach for it.”
The experience prompted Grissom and his wife to institute tech-free Tuesdays at home. It means more quality time with their kids, ages 4 and 1, and even if the kids are too young to understand the concept, he wants them to know there are alternatives to the screen.
Infantolino says she’s had customers tell her they are switching off devices at home because of their experiences at the restaurant.
“I’m grateful just to see families talking again. Everybody is so busy working. It makes me so happy just to see communication,” says Infantolino, who’s in the process of trademarking the program’s tagline, “disconnect from phones, reconnect with family.”
Aside from the diners’ experiences, the staff members are also happy not to see a sea of screens, hunched shoulders and backs of heads, the restaurateurs noted. And when diners are focused on the menus, not phones, it helps with timing back in the kitchen.
At least another U.S. restaurant — Eva restaurant in Los Angeles — has offered a discount for giving up phones during dinner, but it has since closed.