By Martha C. White
Originally featured on NBCnews.com Bottom Line
Hold that call: At Eva, a New American restaurant in Los Angeles, diners who give up their cell phones for the duration of the meal get a 5 percent discount.
“When I first heard about it, I loved it,” said Jaime Oikle, founder of RunningRestaurants.com. “It’s obviously going to be a talking point” that can generate buzz for the restaurant, he said.
The discount is a new solution for a problem that’s vexed restaurant owners since phones became untethered from their cords and small enough to slip into a pocket. Back in 2006 — a year before Apple’s iPhone came onto the market — a New York City councilman suggested a ban on cell phones in restaurants, but abandoned the idea after restaurateurs said such a prohibition would hurt business.
This doesn’t mean all restaurants welcome the beeping, chirping and ringing with open arms. Some high-end eateries post signs or add a line to the menu either asking or telling people not to use their phones at the table.
Most shoot for a tone of politeness, but a few are more stern. Perry’s Deli in Chicago, for instance, serves up a side of snark alongside its signature overstuffed sandwiches with a sign that reads, “Attention! The use of cellular phones at Perry’s is strictly prohibited. If you are that important that you must use your phone, you should be eating in a much more upscale restaurant.”
Rogue 24, a Washington, D.C. eatery that opened last year, quickly gained notoriety for the two-page contract diners had to submit before their reservations would be accepted, which included a ban on camera and cell phone use. Owner RJ Cooper later softened his tone in an interview with food blog Eater.com, saying he had relaxed the contract rules and admitting that even if someone pulled out a phone between bites, “The staff’s so focused that they’re probably going to miss it.”
At Eva, owner Mark Gold is betting that dangling a carrot instead of a stick will be a better way to keep meals phone-free. Gold told NBC4 that nearly half of his patrons take the discount in exchange for a device-free meal. "We want people to be in the moment, not only with the food, but with each other," he said.
Restaurant industry consultant Tom Feltenstein sounded a cautionary note, saying that customers might be averse to forfeiting their phones because of worry over missing an emergency call. “They feel that they need it in case of their kids or their spouse,” he said.
The other drawback to device-free dining is it has the potential to rob restaurant owners of Facebook posts, Foursquare check-ins, Tweets, photos and other social media messages customers send mid-meal. Even though people could communicate after the meal was over and they had retrieved their phones, “I fear you might lose a little bit of that spontaneity,” Oikle said.